(Jan. 23) PLANT CITY, Fla. — A central Florida strawberry grower-shipper is taking organic strawberries to new heights — inside a greenhouse.

Wishnatzki Farms is growing some strawberries organically under an acre of glass. The strawberries are grown in a suspended system that has them in troughs hanging from the ceiling.

This will be the first season the grower-shipper will market the organically and greenhouse-grown berries after Wishnatzki received U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program certification in the fall.

The company expects to get nearly $33 for a flat of 12, 8-ounce clamshells, more than twice the expected season average price of $13 for a flat of conventional berries.

President Gary Wishnatzki said he expects retailers to sell the berries for as much as $6 for a clamshell.

When methyl bromide becomes outlawed for use as a soil fumigant, greenhouses may provide growers an alternative growing system, Wishnatzki said. Though costlier, the greenhouse method doesn’t require such fumigants.

“As area land prices keep going up, this would be more attractive,” Wishnatzki said. “Plus, there’s more interest in organics now than there has ever been.”

Situated between orange groves a few miles northwest of Plant City near Thonotosassa, the greenhouse operation is called Clear Choice Greenhouses LLC. Allen Williford, who has grown strawberries since the late 1970s, brings his growing experience to the operation that he co-owns.

“We can produce them (strawberries) here during the winter when it’s virtually impossible to do organic in Florida on the outside,” he said.

Florida’s strawberry window runs from late November to early March. By growing under glass, Clear Choice plans to run production into May before the onset of high heat and humidity.

THE PAYOFF

Because growing costs are higher with organic and greenhouse production, Wishnatzki plans to recover those additional costs through the organic market’s premiums.

Wishnatzki said he plans to sell the berries for $32.90 for flats of 12 8-ounce clamshells. That compares to $14.90-16.90 for eight 1-pound clamshells of conventionally grown berries, he said in mid-January.

Wishnatzki said he expects Florida’s strawberry deal to average $12.90 for the season before dropping to single digits in March once the deal starts wrapping up.

Wishnatzki and Williford started their partnership as an experiment in 2003. They have been growing the berries semihydroponically without pesticides using a synthetic fertilizer. They are using a liquid fertilizer that allows the crop to be marketed as certified organic, Wishnatzki said.

Because more berries are planted in the greenhouse rows, Wishnatzki said he believes 1 acre under glass will produce the equivalent of what can be grown on 7 acres outdoors.

Clear Choice is Florida’s only certified organic strawberry producer, said Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover.