PLANT CITY, Fla. — Despite the subfreezing temperatures that struck central Florida’s growing region in early and mid-December, grower-shippers were able to protect their crops and said the deal should still bring normal volumes.

Temperatures — which fell into the low 20s — made growers run irrigation systems throughout the night and into early morning. The water forms ice domes covering the berries, which remain protected from the extreme cold.

January to bring high Florida strawberry volume

Doug Ohlemeier

Carl Grooms (left), president of Plant City, Fla.-based Fancy Farms, and Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wishnatzki Farms, view some radiance variety berries.
Grower-shippers say they’re hoping for a regular season compared to last year when January freezes wrecked production.

Harvesting, however, is a couple of weeks later than normal because the wet fields left after the overnight spraying require drying.

Despite the abnormal cold, Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wishnatzki Farms, said production is on track for being a normal year.

He characterized the plants as looking healthy and said January should bring more fruit to the market.

“We will have a very big January this year,” Wishnatzki said in mid-December.

“There’s definitely more fruit on the bushes than there was at this time last year. Even if we didn’t have the freezes last year, there wasn’t a big fruit set. We are seeing quite a bit more fruit setting on the plants, which means we should have higher volume than normal. This is shaping up to be a bigger January than last January.”

Wishnatzki and other grower-shippers mentioned higher than normal opening season prices.

In early December, Wishnatzki said Florida berries sold for $26-30 per flat of eight 1-pound clamshells because of lower than normal California late volume.

Prices eased to $26-28 in mid-December. Wishnatzki said he expected prices to moderate by late December as more volume entered the deal.

In mid-December from central Florida, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported flats of eight 1-pound containers with lids medium and large selling for $26.90-28.90.

Last year in late December from central Florida, the USDA reported $18.90-20.90 for the same flats.

Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner with Colorful Harvest LLC, Salinas, Calif., said all indications lean toward lower temperatures tightening supplies and creating better market price conditions.

“This will have a good news and bad news outcome,” he said.

“Because there are very few competing items now, the retailers that do choose to promote at high price points will most likely experience very high comp store sales over the prior year. You may also find retailers promoting multiple berry SKUs (stock-keeping units), such as strawberries and blackberries, at the same time to create a value perception for their shoppers.”

Mark Greeff, vice president and general manager of the eastern region for Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., which grows and ships from Dover, said buyers should expect a strong season.

“We are very upbeat about this season,” he said in mid-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.”

Greeff said plantings and field establishment were successful and that the season’s timing looks strong.

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover, said he expects the deal to have 10,000 planted acres this season, up from 9,500 acres growers planted last year.

“Obviously, we’re experiencing some minor freeze damage,” he said in mid-December.

“We remain optimistic that temperatures will cooperate and we can get the volume up quickly following this initial slowdown.”

Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover, said buyers should expect the industry to be harvesting more berries by the last week of December.

“Everyone is anxious and ready for Florida strawberries,” he said in mid-December.

“There are a lot of green berries on the plants, so hopefully we will be getting back closer to normal volumes by the 27th.”

Smith said he hopes to get some strong retail ads lined up by then since late December and early January is when Florida’s strawberry deal normally begins to hit high volume.