Pestalotiopsis ( Courtesy University of Florida )

Growing organic strawberries has never been easy for Florida farmers, but the task got a lot more challenging in late December, when a fungus called Pestalotiopsis took hold in some of the state’s berry fields.

It’s hard to say what the final impact will be industrywide, but as of Jan. 2, Gary Wishnatzki, owner, president and CEO of Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms, said he expected to lose at least one-third of the organic strawberries at his G&D Farms operation.

The problem originated with certain nursery stock from out of state, said Natalia Peres, professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, Wimauma.

It is believed that it might have originated with another native host.

Although the fungus affects conventional strawberries as well as organic, fungicides can be more effective in combating the disease in conventional strawberries.

The fungus exploded during Christmas week, when rain and warm weather created ideal conditions for it to proliferate.

It can spread from infected plants to plants that were disease free, Peres said.

Workers moving strawberries as they pick them and pack them, and equipment moving from one field to another can cause the fungus to spread.

It is not believed that the fungus will be able to survive in the soil once the season ends in April, but it’s possible that it may find another host, like oak trees or other vegetation on farms, and resurface in strawberries next season, she said.

Researchers from the university will work with nursery stock providers to try to ensure that the fungus does not reappear next season.

Not all growers were affected by the fungus — at least not so far.

In early January, Bob Wilhelm, owner of Bova Fresh LLC, Boca Raton, Fla., had his fingers crossed as he heard reports of the fungus spreading among various growing operations.

“Luckily for us, we’re not in that position right now,” he said.

Similarly, Jim Grabowski, director of marketing for Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Inc., said Jan. 6 that the disease had not been an issue so far for the company’s Florida strawberries, and Shawn Pollard, salesman at Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, Plant City, Fla., said the company’s strawberries had not been affected either.

There was no estimate as to how many acres or farms were impacted.

“It’s definitely not everybody in the industry,” Peres said. “For the growers who have it, it’s pretty significant.”

Wishnatzki said his fields looked good before Christmas.

“Then all of a sudden, we were having plants go down, and fruit being affected,” he said.

Fungicide sprays available for use on organic strawberries “are not that effective,” he said.

“The best medicine is going to be dry weather.”

But Wishnatzki emphasized that there will be organic strawberries available from Florida.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said.

Strawberries not affected by the disease still will be tasty, good-quality fruit, he said. 

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