Florida Strawberry Season Starts Strong

admin | January 19th, 2015 - 12:49 pm

Gregorio Cruz lifts a pallet of strawberries at Wish Farms packinghouse in Plant City on Monday.

SALLY INCE | THE LEDGER

The 2014-15 Florida strawberry season is shaping up as one of the best in years, report Florida strawberry officials, who then go searching for the nearest wood to knock on.

The quality of the berries is good, and they’re getting very good feedback from consumers.

But the state’s strawberry harvest, which usually runs from late November into March, has several more months to go, so nobody is counting their winnings yet.

Still, the news so far has been mostly positive, including moderate weather, good berry quality, high wholesale prices and thriving consumer demand.

Florida growers have about 11,000 acres of strawberries this season, about the same as in recent years.

Florida strawberry growers started 2014-15 right just by avoiding diseases that infected the new strawberry plants from outof- state nurseries in the past two seasons.

The disease problems did not become visible until they were replanted in Florida soil during the fall, causing many growers to uproot whole fields and plant a second time.

Regarding the weather, they’re right in the middle (on temperatures), so it’s ideal. They welcome cooler weather; it improves the quality of the fruit.

Berries develop more sugar with cooler weather, particularly overnight.  Once the harvest season begins, however, too much rain promotes mold — and hard rains can damage the berry’s sensitive skin.

That has not been a major problem so far, growers said.

The only downside has been a few foggy mornings in January, which create ideal conditions for mold growth.  However, the generally mild winter has been good for berry quality.

Florida strawberry growers so far haven’t faced a lot of competition from Mexican and California strawberries, particularly in its traditional eastern U.S. markets.

In recent seasons, shipments of cheaper Mexican strawberries flooded eastern markets early in the year, causing some Florida growers to plow under their fields as early as February because they couldn’t compete on price.

This season, however, California and Mexican growers have been hampered by cold and rain, lowering production and limiting shipments of what they do produce to the West Coast.

The flood of Mexican imports in past seasons had some Florida growers wondering if they could stay in business. Florida is now optimistic that their strawberries can hold onto the eastern U.S. markets.

The 2014-15 Florida strawberry season is shaping up as one of the best in years, report Florida strawberry officials, who then go searching for the nearest wood to knock on.

“We’re all in good spirits,” said Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover, the industry’s trade group. “The quality of the berries is good, and we’re getting very good feedback from consumers.”

But the state’s strawberry harvest, which usually runs from late November into March, has several more months to go, Parker added, so nobody is counting their winnings yet.

Still, the news so far has been mostly positive, including moderate weather, good berry quality, high wholesale prices and thriving consumer demand.

Florida growers have about 11,000 acres of strawberries this season, about the same as in recent years.

Florida strawberry growers started 2014-15 right just by avoiding diseases that infected the new strawberry plants from outof- state nurseries in the past two seasons, Parker said.

The disease problems did not become visible until they were replanted in Florida soil during the fall, causing many growers to uproot whole fields and plant a second time.

“This year has been a great year,” said Marc Sewell, a Plant City grower, discussing the weather.

“We’re right in the middle (on temperatures), so it’s ideal,” he added. “We welcome cooler weather; it improves the quality of our fruit.”

Berries develop more sugar with cooler weather, particularly overnight, said Sewell and Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms, a strawberry grower that operates a large Plant City packinghouse.

Once the harvest season begins, however, too much rain promotes mold — and hard rains can damage the berry’s sensitive skin.

That has not been a major problem so far, both growers said.

The only downside has been a few foggy mornings in January, which create ideal conditions for mold growth, Wishnatzki said. He agreed with Sewell, however, the generally mild winter has been good for berry quality.

Every package of Wish Farms strawberries is labelled with a toll-free number encouraging feedback from consumers, Wishnatzki said, and it has gotten about 100 responses per day.

“We’re getting extremely good marks from consumers,” Wishnatzki said. “About 95 percent of the responses are positive or neutral, mostly positive.”

Florida strawberry growers so far haven’t faced a lot of competition from Mexican and California strawberries, particularly in its traditional eastern U.S. markets, Parker and the growers agreed.

In recent seasons, shipments of cheaper Mexican strawberries flooded eastern markets early in the year, causing some Florida growers to plow under their fields as early as February because they couldn’t compete on price.

This season, however, California and Mexican growers have been hampered by cold and rain, lowering production and limiting shipments of what they do produce to the West Coast, Parker said.

The flood of Mexican imports in past seasons had some Florida growers wondering if they could stay in business.

Parker and Wishnatzki are now optimistic that Florida strawberries can hold onto the eastern U.S. markets.

Because of good growing conditions, strong consumer demand and limited supplies from competitors, Florida’s strawberry growers saw strong wholesale prices when harvesting began in late November, the growers said.

Growers usually see wholesale prices in the low to middle $20s range in those first few weeks, but the USDA reported prices in early December ranging from $26.90 to $28.90 per 1-pound flat.

Wholesale Florida strawberry prices during the past week ranged from $9.90 to $12.90 per flat, the USDA reported. That’s typical for the lull after Christmas, the industry’s biggest marketing period, and they should pick up again with the approach of Valentine’s Day, its second biggest period.

Growers need a season average of more than $10 per flat to be considered a good year, and the trend looks good so far.

If Mexican and California production remains low, the Florida harvest could extend into April this year, he added. Many growers stop harvesting in March, when the wholesale price for strawberries falls below $7 to $8 per flat, the industry’s average break-even point.

Source:  www.theledger.com, 1-14-15

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