Quick action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service in response to a nematode threat averted what could have been a major setback to Florida’s strawberry crop this season. As a result, growers are looking forward to a strong deal that could yield more than 16 million flats of the sweet, juicy fruit.
With California shipping nine to 10 months of the year, Florida remains a niche market, but a growing one—expanding from $38 million in 1983 to $250 million today, says Tommy Brock, president of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover.
Florida growers typically market their product in the Midwest and in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada. The association will help market the crop this season with its new Drop Red Gorgeous campaign.
The festival variety remains the state’s most popular, but researchers continue to evaluate other cultivars that may tweak the characteristics of the festival with earlier starting dates or other desirable attributes.
University of Florida researchers also are studying intriguing high tunnel growing systems that might boost grower returns during bad weather, and the industry as a whole is trying to cope with ongoing mandatory cutbacks in the use of the vital fumigant methyl bromide.
Growers got a scare in September when strawberry transplants were due to start arriving from Canada.
Golden nematodes were found in some potato fields in Quebec in August, and the U.S.-Canadian border was closed to potato shipments. In early September, movement of strawberry transplants was halted as a precaution, even though strawberries are not a host for the disease.
Planting occurs in Florida throughout October. Because 20 percent of the transplants come from Canada, a ban would have put a major dent in the state’s strawberry season.
But the USDA came through for growers in a big way, Brock says.
USDA-APHIS developed a protocol that allowed the industry to sample the plants in an expeditious manner, and growers were able to get the plants from the three nurseries that were affected by the quarantine on time, he says.
Had shipments of the transplants not been approved, 1,700 acres of the state’s strawberries would not have been planted this season, Brock says.
Strength in numbers
Florida strawberry growers have enjoyed a strengthening market over the past five years during their December to March window, says John Shelford, president of Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla. The company is expected to boost its strawberry volume by 50 percent this season as demand for the fruit increases.
“Strawberries are clearly moving to an everyday item, year-round,” Shelford says.
Strawberries are a high-value crop, but they’re not an easy crop to grow, says Stephen Machell, sales manager at Gulf Coast Produce Inc., Dover.
“You have to be on top of your game,” he says, and pay close attention to things like fertilization, spraying and frost management.
This year’s Florida strawberry deal should be exceptional thanks to fantastic weather with mild days and cool nights, says Tom O’Brien, president of C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co. Inc., Bradenton. The company started picking in November and expected to have promotable volume by the second week of December.
“Right now, I have a very positive outlook,” O’Brien said in late November.
Cutbacks in the use of methyl bromide have been a “big challenge,” Brock says.
An international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol took effect in 1989 to phase out the fumigant, which is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an ozone-depleting substance. This season, U.S. methyl bromide use and production will be limited to 26.4 percent of what it was in 1991, says Mike Aerts, assistant director of the environmental pest management division of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.
Researchers are studying the possibility of applying methyl bromide through irrigation systems, which would eliminate the requirement for protective equipment. They’re also looking at virtually impermeable films that could cut usage. Those films would enable growers to reduce fumigant use by as much as one-half without compromising yields or pest control, says Joe Noling, nematologist and extension specialist at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research & Education Center in Lake Alfred.
Noling says chloropicrin, though not as effective as methyl bromide, is the foundation for any alternative strategy, but it remains unclear what restrictions—such as buffer zone requirements—the EPA may place on this substitute.
“(Growers) have anxiety about the future,” Noling says.
Hooping it up
University researchers are looking into a production method that may enable growers to produce strawberries during rainy weather and earn premium prices. They’re growing berries inside structures called high tunnels, also known as hoop houses, that can protect the fruit from bad weather.
The idea has been studied before, but Bielinski Santos, horticulturist at the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, says a new, 1-acre project that began this fall takes a more systematic approach that will evaluate all aspects of tunnel production.
Tunnels are widely used in Spain to reduce rain and frost damage and water usage and to allow growers to pick earlier, when they can get better prices.
If the idea proves workable in Florida, Santos estimates that some growers might set aside 5 percent to 10 percent of their acreage for tunnels, which can cost $4 to $5 per linear foot as an initial investment. One caveat is that hot weather can be detrimental for berries grown in tunnels.
Speaking of growing inside, at Clear Choice Greenhouses LLC, Thonotosassa, owners Allen Williford and Gary Wishnatzki are beginning the fourth season of their organic greenhouse strawberry program.
Wishnatzki, who also is president of Wishnatzki Farms, Plant City, says he has no current plans to further expand the 1-acre project.
Although the glass structure protects the berries from rain and lets workers harvest in wet weather, yields were less than expected and expenses were “astronomical,” Wishnatzki says.
“It’s certainly not a panacea,” he says.
To market, to market
You’ll have more help marketing berries this year from the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, which has doubled its marketing investment, says Julie Chandler, marketing director.
A Drop Red Gorgeous logo and marketing materials have been developed to help retailers and foodservice operators point out the nutrition benefits of Florida strawberries.
“We’re trying to modernize and update our marketing effort,” Chandler says.
The campaign, which targets women, is designed to make consumers aware that “Florida strawberries are the elite strawberries, and that they are not only beautiful and delicious, but they are very nutritious as well,” she says.
One of the biggest changes Brock of the association has noticed in Florida’s strawberry industry is the switch to locally developed varieties. Twenty-five years ago, 100 percent of strawberries grown in the state originated in California, he says. Today, 90 percent are Florida varieties, with festival accounting for 65 percent of the acreage.
The festival produces uniform, medium-sized fruit that fits well into a 1-pound clamshell container, says Craig Chandler, professor of horticulture at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. The variety has a firm texture and is resistant to bruising, so harvesters can pick the berries quickly without damaging the fruit. They have good flavor if they are allowed to become fully red—all the way to the top of the shoulder, he says.
The festival produces uniform yields throughout the season, and the fruit tend to grow on long stems away from the canopy, which makes picking easier.
“Growers might need fewer harvesters per acre to harvest festival than they would some varieties,” Craig Chandler says.
Another variety, treasure, comes on ahead of festival and accounts for 15 percent of the state’s acreage. The university constantly is looking at new cultivars. One variety, known so far only by its number—FL01-116—produces earlier fruit that is larger than the festival and could replace some of the treasure acreage, Craig Chandler says. It should be available by April.
The university also has hired a new horticulturist who is evaluating fertility programs for each variety and is expected to develop variety-specific fertilization programs, Craig Chandler says. CVM