PLANT CITY, Fla. Florida"s extreme high temperatures have delayed normal volumes of strawberries and are expected to produce supply gaps.

Usually, growers begin harvesting in late November and supplies build until normal volume begins toward the latter part of December with promotable volumes typically commencing close to New Year"s.

This year, however, the record heat pushed back the start of regular Florida production to where normal volumes aren"t expected until early January with promotable volumes forecast to begin in mid-January.

"This heat has really put the berries in a bit of a tailspin for the near term," Gary Wishnatzki, president and CEO of Wish Farms, said Dec. 15. "It will be several weeks before we get back into any real volume again. It will be challenging for the next few weeks. I have a feeling orders will not get filled because of supplies being so disrupted. This weather is really wreaking havoc."

Temperatures throughout November and most of December exceeded normal highs and if the weather cools a little and gives the plants a chance to recover, retail buyers should see better supplies and improved sizings by early January but until then, they should expect a supply gaps, he said.

Shawn Pollard, salesman for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, said he"s seeing a lot of 30-count fruit.

Typically, growers pack 1-pound clamshells with sizings in the low- to mid-20s.

"We are probably doing 60%-70% of what we thought we"d do," Pollard said Dec. 15. "That will drive demand and supply shortages a little. We will be on the tight side through Christmas. It should get better after Christmas. It will still be tough until Jan. 5-10."

Otherwise, quality looks well and Pollard said the next round of fruit set to harvest beginning Dec. 23-25 should be better than current harvested fruit.

Earlier season prices were higher but then moderated.

In mid-December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported flats of 8 1-pound clamshells medium from central Florida selling for $16.90, compared to $28.90-30.90 in early December.

Last year in early December, the USDA reported those same containers from central Florida selling for $26.90-28.90.

In mid- and late December, most of the retailers were beginning to pull Florida fruit, said Tom O"Brien, president of Bradenton-based C&amp D Fruit &amp Vegetable Co. Inc.

"The crop looks great and for the heat they"ve experienced, they have been eating very well," O"Brien said in late December. "Overall, the guys are packing tight and are trying to keep a lot of the small fruit out, so the packs look really good. The season is coming alive."

Chris Smith, sales manager for Dover-based BBI Produce Inc., expects cooler weather to help bring better sizings with the new crop by the first of January.

"The temperatures have moderated so it has improved some," he said in mid-December. "There"s a cool spell coming. It"s not 90 degrees like was in November. That should help things."

Supplies should increase, said Mark McDonald, manager and partner with Sweet Life Farms LLC.

"Volume is down," he said in late December. "Volume has not been as strong as in previous years. We are steady and looking for some better volume coming."



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