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