PLANT CITY, Fla. — Retailers should plan large promotions to help sell a glut of Florida strawberries expected to hit the market in mid-March.

Grower-shippers expect this season’s crop to rebound with higher than normal volumes after freezing weather in January.
Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wishnatzki Farms, said his company expects to ship its highest volume ever in March. Temperatures are forecast to increase to the mid-70s the week of March 8, and Wishnatzki said grower-shippers plan to ship significantly higher volumes of berries by the middle of the month.

Record Florida March strawberry volume expected

Doug Ohlemeier

Florida grower-shippers are advising retailers to expect a large glut of strawberries to hit the market in the middle of March. Freezes that struck during January and the continued cold weather since have delayed pickings and fruit maturities but strawberry fields such as these near Plant City in late February are expected to rebound in volume and flood the market with berries.

Last year in mid-March Wishnatzki Farms picked around 242 crates an acre a week. This year, he said he expects to pick 329 crates an acre the week of March 15 and up to 400 crates an acre during the week of March 22.

“It is imperative for the industry to have major promotions from mid-March on,” Wishnatzki said in early March. “In order for growers to be able to continue picking their crop and make it through Easter, they will have to have some very heavy promotions for the week of March 15. If you look at a production graph, it’s like a rocket ship with a straight line going up. In comparing last year’s ramp up as a gentle hill, this year, it will be like climbing Mount Everest.”

Though he called prices “all over the board,” Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover, said Florida prices have remained favorable for March production.

On March 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported demand exceeding supply at lower prices for central Florida production.

The USDA reported flats of 8 1-pound clamshells medium/large selling for $10.90-14.90, down from $14.90-16.90 in late February.

Last year in late February, the USDA reported flats of 8 1-pound clamshells medium large and flats 12 1-pint baskets selling for $12.90-14.90.

Smith said growers expect larger than normal volumes during the latter part of March and that retailers are expressing a lot of interest in big promotions for the April 4 Easter holiday.

“With the cool weather and the quality we have had, the strawberry plants and fruit should remain good and strong for a couple of weeks extra than normal,” he said in early March.  “We will be returning to normal. We’re not talking about getting extra production because the market has been so short. We will be glad to be back to normal movement compared to where it has been.”

While Florida’s winter strawberry deal normally runs through early to mid-April, Smith said BBI’s grower-owners could continue pickings an extra couple of weeks if weather and markets cooperate.

BBI’s growers normally begin decreasing pickings during the first week of April and finish by the middle of the month.

Wholesalers say the weather problems have hurt their distribution.

“The volume is really not there, in California or Mexico either as California has had its weather issues as well,” said Andrew Scott, sales and procurement manager for General Produce Inc., Atlanta. “It has been tough trying to get truckloads out of Plant City this season.”

Wishnatzki said Florida strawberry volume to-date has been off by 55%-60% and that pickings have been slipping a little every day.

In season to-date shipments, the USDA reported central Florida shipping 55.8 million pounds through late February this season vs. 110 million pounds the region shipped in late February last season.

Wishnatzki said berries should resume growth once central Florida receives several consecutive days of high temperatures in the 70s and overnight lows in the 50s.

He said the region has experienced too many cold mornings and that forecasts show more overnight temperatures falling into the 30s March 3-5.