Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

If Florida’s strawberry season appears to be casting a new gleam this season, it’s because the deal is enjoying expanding production and positive early season growing conditions.

The state’s winter deal is also gaining favor with retailers.

This season opened as normal in late November, though some growers began harvesting earlier in the month. Overall, however, the deal started on time, with growers bringing considerably more volume to the table.

Stymied by weather pains that frustrated production during the last two seasons, growers say they feel they are due for a better year.

“The weather has been good down here,” Robert Ondrus, director of category management for produce for U.S. Foodservice Inc., Rosemont, Ill., said in late December.

“Last year at this time, we had the freeze. Because of the weather, you’re not having as much problems sourcing product from Florida. We have had pretty much ideal growing conditions.”

When growers experience a break-even or a profitable year, the money they make becomes a capital investment that allows them to expand their business.

Growing confidence

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover, points to optimism for a better season as one factor contributing to growers planting nearly 1,000 additional acres this year.

“Coming off both of the last two seasons with good quality fruit at the finish, that is building more retail confidence for our fruit to stay in a little longer with Florida at the end of the season,” he said.

“The retailers don’t drop Florida as quickly as they used to. They now see the varieties we grow as having legs and the durability and shelf life they need. We have built the confidence at retail that these varieties won’t melt at the end of the year.”

That late-season fruit, Campbell says, is often the best-tasting fruit.

New varieties

Growers are planting more of the new radiance variety. Some growers planted as much as half their acreage to the early variety.

More growers are testing winter star, another new variety, this year. Campbell said winter star remains the next best variety to the successful radiances and festivals.

To help shorten the breeding to commercial release cycle, the association’s patent services arm that funds variety development attempted a new more structured release methodology, shortening the decade-long University of Florida release process. It also puts new varieties into the fields faster, Campbell said.

“What we want is a pure plant to when we build it up to millions of plants for commercial production, we won’t have a hiccup later,” Campbell said. “This controlled release is slower at start, but once it hits the ground, it will be more up to speed than past varieties. This gives everyone pure plants so we don’t get mixed results. It’s a really fascinating part of the backside of the business that most don’t ever see.”

Growers planting “plug” plants is one reason for this season’s bounty of early production.

Instead transplanting traditional plants with bare roots, some growers transplanted plug plants grown in nursery cells with intact root systems.

“Plug plants hit the ground running and don’t have to go through any stress,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla. “They’re living plants when you put them in.”

While growers have experimented with the plug plants in the past, Wishnatzki said the radiance variety seems better adapted to the plug plant deal than other varieties.

Aside from the increased early production to hit higher early markets, plug plants require less water, a conservation step critical in Hillsborough County, where water is in short supply.