PLANT CITY, Fla. —  Buyers should prepare for big promotions to counter an abundance of Florida strawberries expected to hit the market in mid-March.

Cold weather dampens strawberry production but spares blueberry damage

Doug Ohlemeier

Strawberries at a field near Plant City in late February.
Grower-shippers are advising buyer to prepare for big promotions to help move a surge in Florida strawberries that is expected to hit the market in mid-March.
Freezes that struck during January and the continued cold weather since have delayed pickings and fruit maturities.

Though growers were able to protect their strawberries from the blast of colder-than-normal weather that blew through central Florida’s berry growing regions during January, the freezing temperatures delayed pickings and fruit maturities.

That cold weather, however, didn’t damage the state’s blueberry crop, which needs chill hours to properly produce.

Florida’s winter strawberry deal normally runs through early to mid-April while growers begin picking the state’s blueberries in late March.

Continued cold prevented proper fruit coloring in February, and it has been many days since growers have seen the amount of bloom they were seeing on plants on second hands of picking in mid- to late February, said Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms.

Wishnatzki said growers expect to produce a flush of fruit beginning March 10-15 with heavy volumes running through Easter, which falls on April 4 this year.

“We will build a crescendo going into Easter this year and we could have some of our heaviest volume of the season leading into Easter,” Wishnatzki said in mid-February. “It’s not looking good from the growers’ perspective because so much volume will be coming at one time. It will be hard to keep them picked and hard to keep them sold.”

Wishnatzki said growers will need retailers to plan aggressive March promotions to help keep movement going into April.

Calling this season’s prices a bit higher than normal, Wishnatzki in mid-February quoted $16-18 for flats of 8 1-pound clamshells.

Shippers send most of Florida’s berries to retailers in 1-pound clamshells.

Wishnatzki plans to ship about 3 million flats this season, more than the 2.5 million flats his operation shipped last season.

Wm. P. Hearne Produce Co. LLC, Wimauma, has boosted its strawberry acreage.

Though Hearne had strawberries last season, this year is the first with a larger amount of acreage, said Tony Piedimonte co-owner.

“The berries fared well,” Piedimonte said in early February. “The cold slowed volume and caused minor damage.”

Piedimonte said more industry plantings are moving west toward Wimauma.

Hearne grows 100 acres of strawberries.

Volumes down
Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, said January and early February shipments were down 70% from the same time period last season.

He agreed March should see higher-than-normal production, and said growers remain optimistic they will finish the season in a strong position.

The season has been a tough year for growers, Mixon said.

Cold weather dampens strawberry production but spares blueberry damage

Courtesy SunnyRidge Farm

January freezes have had minimal or no effect on the blueberries

“November and December started out great with everything working out just right,” he said in mid-February. “Then we had January with so many freeze events and cold weather, it really took its toll.”

January’s freezing temperatures didn’t harm blueberry buds, Mixon said.

“The freezes have had minimal or have had no effect on the blueberries,” he said in mid-February. “The cold weather for some varieties has made them what appears to be a little later than normal, but other varieties seem to have responded very well to the cold. We expect to have a good crop in typical fashion. All in all, it should be a nice year.”

The state’s blueberry acreage is expected to increase by 30% this season. Last season’s also saw a 30% jump from the year before, Mixon said.

Florida shipped an estimated 13 million pounds in 2009, up from 10 million pounds in 2008.
Mixon said he expects the state to ship 16 million to 18 million pounds spread out through the state’s southern, central and northern growing regions.

Pickings start in south Florida near Zolfo Springs around March 15, peaking about five days earlier than central Florida’s berries near Haines City, which begins about a week earlier than north Florida production in Gainesville.

While blueberry pickings normally begin in late March, peak volume typically hits in early and mid-April with volume lessening by May 10.

Wishnatzki said his growers plan to start pickings in early April.

He said he thinks prices will be strong at the start because there may not be as many Chilean storage blueberries in the market dragging into the start of Florida’s season as there have been in past years.

“We are looking for a good season,” Wishnatzki said in mid-February. “We expect there will be good production.”