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Driscoll looks forward to another big Fla. strawberry season

by Chip Carter | January 03, 2011
For 107 years, Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. has specialized in berries and nothing but.

In 1904, friends Joseph (Ed) Reiter and R.O. Driscoll decided to work together, growing Sweet Briar strawberries in California's Panjaro Valley. A half-century later, the business they founded became Driscoll Strawberry Associates. Flash forward another 50 years and Watsonville, CA-based Driscoll, still family owned and operated, has become one of the world’s great berry brands.

The first associate farmers joined the Driscoll group in California in the 1940s. Now the company grows proprietary berries year round in central and Southern California, Florida, central Mexico and Baja California.

Driscoll’s Florida operations are headquartered in Dover, on the outskirts of Plant City, the winter strawberry capital of the world and home to 90 percent of Florida’s strawberry production.

Last year, Driscoll increased its Florida acreage by about 10 percent, according to Mark Greeff, the firm’s Eastern region vice president and general manager. The company does not disclose exact totals of the acreage it farms in the state, but production is expected to increase again this season.

Cold weather in December put a crimp in the start of Driscoll’s Florida season. For the past three years, that has been an unusual factor that all Florida strawberry growers have had to deal with. In 2008, central Florida experienced more than 30 nights of sub-freezing temperatures, an unlikely and unwelcome occurrence. In January and February 2010, the area had even more cold weather, with as many as a dozen consecutive sub-freezing nights in prime strawberry growing areas. December 2010 was the coldest on record for Florida, and the hard freeze of Dec. 6 was the earliest in the season ever to frost the state.

Still, "We are very upbeat about this season," Mr. Greef said in late December. “It looks very promising to us. We have had a strong start. Outside of this sudden cold weather, we feel very good about the coming season.”

With a La Nina weather pattern indicating a warmer, drier winter, Driscoll is poised for a banner January and February for its Florida strawberry crop.

The Driscoll crop is all proprietary berries, and has been for 70 years. Research and development teams use natural breeding methods without genetic modification or irradiation to create patented varieties that are more resistant to pests and pathogens while meeting stringent quality standards for flavor and appearance.

“We are entirely a proprietary program,” Mr. Greeff said. “We breed varieties specifically for the Florida climate that fit into different parts of the season, so we have been picking fruit since Thanksgiving, and we expect to have reasonable volumes of fruit all the way through the end of the season around Easter.”

He concluded, “We have no complaints. The market seems to be more upbeat than it was a year ago. The economy seems to be rebounding nicely, and people are eating strawberries.”