PLANT CITY, Fla. — Unseasonably warm weather opened this year’s Florida strawberry deal earlier than typical and produced smaller-sized fruit.

From November into mid-December, central Florida temperatures were about 10 degrees above typical, which isn’t conducive to solid fruit production, said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Heat, smaller sizes mark opening of Florida strawberry seasonChris Smith, sales manager of BBI Produce Inc., in Dover, said early season fruit didn’t begin in great shape, and growers harvested many misshapen and smaller-sized fruit.

In mid-December, however, he said quality and sizing were improving.

“We didn’t have a great start early on but from this point going forward, it’s better,” Smith said. “The berries and the blooms that are on the plants now look outstanding. You can look at the stems and tell by the shape and bloom that the quality will be nice and will bring large fruit. We are off to a good start.”

Jeremy Burris, vice president of sales and sourcing for Salinas, Calif.-based Colorful Harvest LLC’s Florida division, said counts were running close to the normal 24s per 1-pound clamshell with some packing as many as 32s while Colorful Harvest prefers 16 counts.

“Our fruit looks good,” Burris said in mid-December. “The quality is extremely nice. So far, demand exceeds supply.”

Mark Greeff, vice president and general manager of the Eastern region for Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., said the weather is pressing the fruit.

“It is a little bit of a challenge on the fruit when the nights are so warm, in the mid-60s,” he said in mid-December. “But it should cool down, and we should be in really good shape to have a strong Florida season.”

Greeff described quality as high and said he expects supplies to be high as well going into the new year.

Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms, agreed sizing hasn’t been that big, but he said the growing region finally experienced some cooler temperatures in mid-December. The more favorable weather was producing better sizings and conditions.

He expects early fruit volume to peak in early January.

“The berries look good and quality is coming along,” Wishnatzki said in mid-December. “We will have a good increase around New Year’s so that should be a good time for retailers to get some front-page promotions going.”

In mid-December, Wishnatzki reported flats of eight 1-pound clamshells from Florida selling for $20-22.95 with contracted product fetching $18.95, up from the $18-20 the open-market flats garnered in early December.

In mid-December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported insufficient sales of Florida strawberries to establish a market. However, those same flats medium-large from California were selling for $20-22 as of Dec. 23, lower than the $22.90-26.90 those containers sold for in early December last season.

“With the exception of the marketplace wanting to be less (in price) quicker, the season’s looking good,” said Steve Machell, sales manager for Dover-based Gulf Coast Produce Inc. “The growing season has been good. Some of the early festival varieties were a little small right out of the chute, but I think they’ll gain in size as the weather gets colder.”

This season, growers planted 11,000 acres, similar to last season, Campbell said.

Campbell said the deal should produce 28 million flats, up from last year’s 25 million flats.

The volume boost follows higher yields from increased plantings of the radiance variety.