( Courtesy Wish Farms )

The beginning of the Florida strawberry season has started off lighter than usual but should find strong volume in January.

“The hot fall we experienced has been a challenge, but the growers seem to be weathering it well,” said Vance Whitaker, strawberry breeder at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.

“Prices to this point remain high, so it has been a good start,” Whitaker said.

“With the cool fronts we have experienced the berries are tasting great right now, which is a great thing to be able to say heading into the Christmas season.”

The start of the Florida season was met with hot weather and smaller fruit, but that was changing by mid-December, said Sue Harrell, marketing director for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

“With the cooler weather the fruit has more size and better shape to it now,” she said Dec. 17.

Shipping point prices for conventional strawberries on Dec. 14 were $26-26.90 per flat of 8 1-pound containers, up from $16.90-18.90 per flat the same time a year ago.

Shipping point prices for Florida organic strawberries were $34-36.9 per flat of 8 1-pound containers on Dec. 14, compared with $30.90 -34.90 per container at the same time a year ago.

Acreage trends

There is no government estimate for strawberry acreage for 2018, and Harrell said acreage is thought to be near 10,000 acres.

In the 2017 Florida agriculture review, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that planted acres totaled 10,800 in 2017, while harvested acreage was 10,700 acres.

The USDA said Florida strawberry growers had an average yield of 225 hundredweight per acre. Total production totaled 2.41 million cwt., according to the USDA. Prices received totaled $140 per cwt., with a total value of $336.89 million.

Slow start

USDA shipment statistics show that season-to-date shipments of Florida conventional strawberries totaled 8.73 million pounds through Dec. 8, down 43% compared with the same time a year ago, when 15.1 million pounds had been shipped.

Total shipments of Florida conventional strawberries during the 2017-18 totaled 240.8 million pounds, according to the USDA.

Many Florida strawberry growers tried to plant earlier to get earlier production, but Gary Wishnatzki, president, CEO and owner of Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., said the strategy didn’t work this year.

“This wasn’t the right year for (planting earlier) based on the warm fall we had, with heat in October and heat stretching into November,” he said, noting that early plants were overly vegetative with small early hands of fruit.

Strawberry output was in a gap in mid-December and Wishnatzki said volume won’t yield much until January.

“We expect it is going to continue (light) all the way through the holiday,” he said.

“The plants are forming heavy crowns, so they’re going to have a lot of production at some point,” he said.

Wishnatzki said acreage in Florida could be slightly less — perhaps 5% — compared with a year ago, with Hillsborough County at about 11,000 acres and Manatee County at near 1,000 acres.

PROMOTIONS

On Dec. 17, Shawn Pollard, sales representative with Plant City, Fla.-based Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, said Florida strawberry volume may be light through early January.

“It looks to me like it’s going to be mid-January before we really get into promotable volume,” he said.

With volume reaching strong levels by Jan. 20, he said Florida strawberry growers should be well-positioned to meet Valentine Day’s demand.

“I think the first of February we will see real heavy production and so we’ll be able to support a lot of aggressive ads for that period,” he said.

Harrell said the Florida Strawberry Growers Association will continue its outreach to consumers.

“We are excited to partner with Publix this year at an event in Florida,” she said, noting the group’s involvement in the 11th Annual Publix Florida Marathon Weekend, Feb. 9-10.

Florida strawberries will be served and given to the winners along with a strawberry-themed medal featuring the Florida Strawberry Growers Association mascot Jammer on a surf board, Harrell said.

The association also will be at trade shows and work with retailers through partnering with the Fresh From Florida folks at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, she said.

 
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