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Florida strawberry deal comes to an abrupt end despite abundant supply

by Chip Carter | March 31, 2010
It was a scenario predicted two months ago in the wake of two weeks of freezing weather that had Florida strawberry farmers saturating fields to save a crop: Without cooperation from Mother Nature, the entire crop would come on at once, creating a market glut that would butt heads with the onset of the California season.

Mother Nature did not cooperate, as Florida nights stayed cool, and rain was overly abundant. The crop did indeed come on all at once, and growers found themselves with more berries than they could possibly market. As a result, many spent the weekend of March 27-28 plowing under fields still flush with fruit in a cost-cutting move that drew widespread media attention and angered some Floridians.

"As Mark Twain said, 'Lies go halfway 'round the world before truth gets its shoes on,'" said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover, FL. "Every season ends -- and some end uglier than others."

Despite the media attention, the crop destruction was not atypical - there are always berries left in the field each season when farmers begin preparing for spring vegetable crops.

"Once the California market comes on, we're done here," said J.R. Pierce of Astin Farms in Plant City, FL. "There are still plenty of berries in the field, there's just no market for them."

With Florida growers getting as little as 25 cents a pound, or $4 a flat, for their product at the end of March, many found it to be cost-prohibitive to harvest and market the crop.

Most Florida growers had earlier announced plans to try to extend the season to make up some of the shortfall from production lost to the freezing weather. Some are planning to keep about half their acreage in production for a few more weeks, while others have slammed the window shut altogether.

Floridians upset by the news of the crop destruction told local media they felt betrayed due to sacrifices they unwillingly and unwittingly made during the freeze to help strawberry growers survive. Two weeks of watering fields to prevent crop losses dried up wells in the Plant City area and opened sinkholes in an unpredictable pattern - including one in the middle of Interstate 4, one of the state's busier thoroughfares. At least one family without prohibitively expensive sinkhole insurance lost its home, while others suffered damages that will not be covered by insurance.

Local media gave the impression that the growers were destroying the crop in a last-gasp effort to prop up rock-bottom market prices.

"People felt like we used the water, then lost the crop," Mr. Campbell said. "The media made no mention of the fact that we've been harvesting these plants for four months, that this is typically the end of our season anyway, and that this is a regular occurrence. A quarter-a-pound doesn't cover your fixed costs."

At least one grower found a way to salvage a public relations victory out of the glut.

Wish Farms in Plant City opened several acres of its fields to the public in a free-for-all that drew some 5,000 amateur berry pickers and brought in television crews and other media from around the state. Not only were the berries free (although charitable donations were accepted for the benefit of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides childcare and education, to migrant laborers), the company also provided flats and containers for picking, and had workers on-site to provide assistance to citizen harvesters.

Most growers opted to plow under fields rather than open themselves to liability concerns or risk damage to fields that will be expected to make a late-spring vegetable crop.

"We wanted to make a positive statement," said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms. "The industry has been getting a ton of bad press and most of it is totally unwarranted. We wanted to show that we're trying to do the right thing and that we're trying to dispel some of the negativity that is out there. I think we pretty much turned it around in the public's eyes. It kind of showed the industry in a better light. We got a lot of positive responses."

Mr. Wishnatzki said that his company received about 100 positive e-mails following the weekend giveaway and also saw an increase in the fan base for its Facebook page.