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Florida strawberry growers hold their breath as the new year unfurls with crop and market in fine shape

As the new year rolled into its first week, Florida strawberries were in great shape with abundant volume, excellent quality and — unlike last year — a solid market.

“I hold my breath when I say everything’s fine, but there are not too many problems just yet,” Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Plant City, FL, told The Produce News FL-Strawberry-7Jan. 3. “I think the market will be okay. They’re harvesting full bore right now, which means the prices will come down with the volume of the harvest, but I think we’ll be okay.”

Early in the season, strawberry prices were at near-record highs as demand was strong and little volume was available.

Last year, Florida growers got clobbered by a trifecta of calamity: California, which is usually out of the deal by the time Florida comes on in early December, had an extended season; Mexico had tremendous volume; and a very warm winter — even by Florida standards — led to volume that simply crashed the market as growers tried to unload berries anywhere they could at any price.

Things are different this year.

“Obviously last year was an aberration,” Mr. Campbell said. “California went longer than normal, we had a heat wave and flooded the market ourselves and Mexico had the same thing — you had three areas at full volume at the same time,” Mr. Campbell said. “This year California got knocked out early — not to wish anybody harm, but that’s where they should be, that’s their window. Mexico has not been overwhelming — they got a little ahead of us in the market but our product’s filled in there pretty quickly. I’m fairly optimistic at the moment. But this thing can change on a dime.”

And it has before. Over the past few years, Florida growers have gone through boom and bust. Untimely freezes have decimated crops in some years, others have seen nature’s bounty turned on its head, like last year’s too much of a good thing. Competition from other growing areas has increased. Environmental and growing challenges are regular obstacles.

But “growers are always optimistic or they wouldn’t plant,” Mr. Campbell said. “Competition’s never going to go away. That means my guys have to stay sharp and smart in order to compete. Nobody’s going to hand you a gift, you’ve gotta earn what you want. Make sure your package is good, your product is good quality, picked to the right standards and specifications. If growers are doing these things correctly they can maintain their market share. And I think the American public is more inclined than ever to look for made-in-America right now and we can capitalize on that.”