Despite challenging conditions, a number of Florida strawberry growers continue to ramp up their volume of organic berries every season.
“It’s tough in Florida,” said Vance Whitaker, strawberry breeder for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Gulf Coast Research and Education Center at Wimauma.
Rain and high humidity combined with heat at certain times do not make for ideal growing conditions for organic berries.
Just this season, a fungus in nursery stock brought in from out of state has affected several strawberry fields.
Despite that, organic acreage is on the rise in the state.
“We’re seeing more companies get into it, and we’re see those acreages go up,” Whitaker said.
“(Growers) are finding that they believe it is a profitable niche, despite the challenges.”
Florida’s growers produced about 25.1 million trays of eight 1-pound clamshell containers during 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bova Fresh LLC, Boca Raton, Fla., has increased its organic acreage by 25% this year, said owner Bob Wilhelm.
The company has been growing organic strawberries on its own farm for five years, he said, and the program is doing well with decent yields — at least for organic strawberries.
“I can’t complain about our organics for the past few years,” Wilhelm said. “We’ve done a real good job with them.”
Bova Fresh has expanded its organic acreage almost every year for the past five years and plans to continue to grow the deal.
“Demand is outrageous,” Wilhelm said.
Almost all of the firm’s organic strawberries are programmed out to specific retailers, he said.
“Everyone wants to have a few on the shelf.”
Despite a setback this season caused by the fungus from out-state nursery stock, Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., remains the leader in organic strawberries, said Gary Wishnatzki, president, CEO and owner.
The company implemented its organic deal in Florida 15 years ago.
“We were the trail blazers,” he said.
Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, Plant City, Fla., has had good demand for its organic strawberries, said Shawn Pollard, sales representative.
“Everybody wants them,” he said. “Organic really complements our overall program.”
This is the fifth season the company will offer organic strawberries.
This will be the first season that Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Inc. will have an organic strawberry program in Florida, said Jim Grabowski, director of marketing.
The company now sources from 60 acres in the Sunshine State.
It’s more difficult to grow organic strawberries in Florida than in California, Grabowski said, so the company held off on launching an organic product there. But as demand continues to increase, it appears a program may be worthwhile.
The deal might expand if it proves successful, and if demand continues to grow, he said.
Florida strawberries are grown in a subtropical climate, but growers can’t use synthetic compounds to offset the negative impact of weather and diseases, like botrytis, said Pollard of Astin Strawberry Exchange.
“If something happens, you have to strip them off and throw them on the ground,” he said.
“Organic farming in Florida is always a challenge,” Wishnatzki added.
Organic production typically is about 50% of conventional, more inputs are needed, and there is a greater risk of losing one’s crop, he said.
Nonetheless, customers want organic berries.
“It’s something we’ve got to do to keep the demand satisfied,” Wishnatzki said. “It’s something we feel very strongly about.”
When it comes to selecting a specific kind of berry, there’s one that has been attracting a lot of attention, Whitaker said.
“A lot of (organic) growers have focused on the sensation variety,” he said.
Sensation has a relatively high fertility level, decent yields and the good flavor organic buyers want, he said.