PLANT CITY, Fla. — As growers were heavy into their winter plantings, Florida growers hoped for a better strawberry season.

January’s gripping cold and freezes gutted production and slowed fruit development, bringing too much of the 2009-10 crop on the market late in the season and sending prices to the ground.

In late November, growers usually start light pickings or scrapping for red berries in the rows of predominantly green berries in the prime Plant City and Dover areas.

Growers hope for better winter growing conditions for strawberry deal

Doug Ohlemeier

Late freezes and lack of adequate bloom set made strawberry season difficult for Florida growers last season, but this year is shaping up to
be much better, says Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms. If the weather holds, Florida growers should have more fruit earlier
than last season, he says.

Volume increases in mid-December and slowly builds into promotable levels by Christmas.

Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms, said last season started slowly.

Even without the later freezes, Wishnatzki said the berries didn’t receive adequate bloom set, and the unusual cold weather compounded that.

The freezes slowed things further, and the fruit wasn’t there to begin with, robbing growers of the early season push when prices are usually higher.

This season, however, looks to be different, Wishnatzki said.

“It looks like there will be more fruit,” he said in mid-October. “Hopefully, we will have better weather. If everything is equal, there should be more acres and plenty of promotable volume. The variety mix looks good. We will have some good shipping varieties the industry is planting.”

One of Florida’s largest berry shippers, Wishnatzki plans to ship from more than 1,500 acres, up from last season’s 1,200 acres.

In late October Oct. 19, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported flats of 12 1-pint baskets small-medium from Salinas, Calif., selling for $11-12 and flats of 8 1-pound containers with lids medium-large for $9-10, unchanged from mid-October.

Prices usually increase as Florida’s deal opens.

SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, moved its plantings forward and plans to begin harvesting in late November.

“Through early December, we will have volume that will be nice, and so we will be aggressively pushing for an early window this season,” Keith Mixon, SunnyRidge’s president and chief executive officer, said in mid-October. “Demand is typically higher in November and December. We want to get a good portion of our crop to our customers as quickly as possible.”

Wm. P. Hearne Produce Co. LLC, Wimauma, began planting Oct. 4 and expects to start with a small amount of berries around Thanksgiving. The company is planning for larger production to begin movement Dec. 1.

Jeff Williams, president, called last season OK, one that produced many berries in December.

“On the earlier berries, the fruit was good,” he said. “Toward the tail end, it got real ugly because there was lot of volume, but fortunately, we were done by then.”

Florida’s winter deal normally hits promotable volume in January and typically ends in late March and early April.

Florida’s blueberry deal usually starts in late March and runs through May.

Unfavorable cold weather wrecked the blueberry deal this past season, delaying volumes a week or more until May when Georgia and North Carolina enter the deal.

While SunnyRidge normally ships 80% of its fruit before May, this past season it shipped less than 8% of its fruit in April.

“It all just fell into the May window, which traditionally doesn’t have the prices April has,” he said. “I can’t imagine Mother Nature playing that game with us again. Let’s plan more of a statistically proven window than last season was.”

Wishnatzki said the season started a week later than normal, and Georgia production coming in on top of Florida pushed prices lower.

“Everything (all produce) was affected price-wise by the freeze,” he said. “When you miss your window and are later, you will get lower prices. Blueberry averages were a little lower this past year because of the lateness.”