Berry growers faced heat from weather, competitors - WFLA News Channel 8

Berry growers faced heat from weather, competitors

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By Dave Nicholson

What a difference two years makes.

In 2010, growers endured record freezes, including 11 consecutive January days where temperatures dropped to near- or below-freezing. Farmers struggled to keep up with demand as berries matured slowly in the cold.

Fast forward to this season, and the records – and the mercury – went the other way. It was the warmest growing season Wish Farms President Gary Wishnatzki can recall in his nearly four decades growing the fruit.

A glut of berries flooded the market at the same time competitors in California and Mexico were enjoying their own warm weather-induced bumper crops.

"We had too much fruit at the same time," said Wishnatzki, whose company markets 2,000 acres of berries.

Retail prices per pound averaged $1.99 in a recent week compared with $2.30 at the same time last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.

"It's going to be a very difficult financial year," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Consumers have gotten a bargain, with flats of berries selling for as low as $5 at roadside stands during the Florida Strawberry Festival. But farmers struggled to make a profit.

"It's not going to be a money-maker," longtime grower Carl Grooms said of this season.

The marketplace is governed by supply and demand. Too many berries, and prices go down.

Some growers took the unprecedented step in December of sending their berries for juicing, where they receive only a fraction of the price compared with sales of fruit to retailers.

Berries sent for juicing are used in strawberry flavoring in foods such as ice cream. Typically, berries are juiced at the end of the season, but growers sent some of their December crop for juicing in the prime month to try to keep prices up for fresh fruit.

Grooms, for example, shipped 50,000 flats for juicing and netted a profit, after expenses, of $15,000.

The strategy helped keep the market from collapsing for berries.

Excessive cold and heat are both hard on Plant City's top crop. The area produces most of the nation's winter strawberries.

Temperatures of 28 degrees and lower can destroy the berries and plants, with blossoms even more vulnerable. Growers can protect the crops from the cold with irrigation and other methods, but the fruit is slower to mature.

Heat encourages the plants to rapidly produce berries that tend to be small and not as sweet. Fungus and other diseases also run rampant in warm and humid conditions, and growers have to fight back with chemicals, an added expense.

Volume in the fields his organization monitors rose from 11 million flats in 2010 to 16 million in 2011, Campbell said. This year's total expected to hit about 19 million flats before the season ends shortly.

"It's just been a hot year," Campbell said. "It's been a high-production year."

Prime growing areas – from Mexico to Florida to California – have all experienced unseasonable warmth. So growers in those regions have all had to contend with a supply problem.

Growers in the Plant City area planted more land than ever this year, about 10,000 acres, which also helped contribute to the bumper crop, Campbell said.

Area farmers faced higher costs – especially fuel and labor – at the same time berry prices dropped, said Peggy Parke, vice president of Parkesdale Farms.

Campbell said he hopes the unseasonably warm season will be a learning experience for growers and retailers. Growers are finding varieties that hold up better in warm weather. And supermarkets may realize that there's money to be made with promoting berry sales earlier in the season.

The retailers have been reluctant to promote berries in December because of sometimes volatile weather that can wipe out supplies. Perhaps supermarkets in future warm years will not miss the opportunity to promote the fruit in December, when it's a popular impulse buy for shoppers, Campbell said.

"People in December are very hungry for strawberries," he said.

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