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TAMPA, FL -- While January and February are typically boom months for Florida strawberries, this year's abnormal weather patterns continually pushed back harvesting and maturation so that the bulk of the Florida crop is just coming to market in mid-March.

The bad news is Florida growers lost two prime months of a market window they usually have to themselves. The good news is the crop that is coming on now is abundant and of very high quality. Many growers have announced plans to extend the season, and some have told The Produce News they will be doing Easter ads, an uncommon opportunity for Florida berry producers.

"Abnormally cool temperatures delayed maturation of the berries," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. "Strawberries stayed on the plants longer, so they had more time to produce sugar. The result is the sweetest strawberries we've seen in a very long time."

Not only are the berries exceptionally sweet this year, they're also much larger than average.

"These berries are huge," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, based near the winter berry production capital of Plant City, FL. "The crop took forever to come on, but it's finally here. The plants took so long to mature that the fruit is just monstrous." The harvest is at peak now but will continue through at least mid-April and could go longer. Each season, there are still plenty of Florida berries in the field when the market shifts from Florida to California fruit, and this season there will be even more.

Usually Florida farmers send their late-season crop to local markets, including roadside stands and independent grocers. This year, many have indicated they will try to move that crop in primary markets.

"We will see some Easter ads," Mr. Campbell said. "It's going to be a bargain for consumers, no doubt. Right now growers are just hoping to recoup some of their investment."

The Florida crop was valued at more than $300 million in 2008-09, with virtually all production coming between December and April. Production is centered in Hillsborough County in the west-central part of the state and averages 18 millions flats per year -- about 15 percent of the country's annual strawberry crop.

Neither the strawberry growers association nor the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association collect official data on crop size, so there is no accurate data yet on weather-related losses for this year's crop - and there will not be until the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its crop assessment later this year.