PLANT CITY, Fla. Torrential July and August rains delayed Florida strawberry growers from preparing fields for winter production but helped increase attendance at this year"s industry meetings.

At the Aug. 4-5 Agritech educational seminar and trade show, growers heard how technology will help them save on labor expenses, the latest updates on food safety rules and how a major competitor is gaining market share.

Attendance was a little higher than last year"s because of the inclement weather, said Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association, which sponsors the show.

"There are a lot of great topics being discussed and as we all know, we continue to have many, many issues affecting our industry," said association president Todd Jameson, manager of Berry Bay Farms in Wimauma. "A lot of the presentations should cover those issues and help us out. At same time, there are also a lot of positive and exciting things that will help our industry."

Zhengfei Guan, an assistant professor with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences" Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma, discussed his research into the strawberry industry"s production, trade and marketing.

In 2012, the U.S. became net importer of strawberries and imported even more in 2014, especially during Florida"s winter and early spring window, he said.

Labor constitutes 44% of Florida growers" costs with packing and cooling and crop cultural practices respectively accounting for 23% of costs, he said.

"This is a huge problem for the Florida industry," he said. "We have a lot of issues and it"s hard to find enough labor. Workers have more options and have more bargaining power in the market. They"re less willing to follow the rules and some growers have had to downsize because of labor issues."

Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms and co-founder of Harvest CROO Robotics in Tampa, talked about robotic technology being developed to mechanically harvest berries.

"There have been rapid advances in technology," he said. "There are pick and place robots moving things around, which is done in chocolates and computer chips. We have a shrinking labor force, which has been trending for at least 10 years so there"s a tremendous need (for such technology)."

On food safety, Michelle Danyluk, associate professor of food science at the Florida Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, discussed what could happen when the Food and Drug Administration releases the final Food Safety Modernization Act rules, which are expected in the fall.
In sampling of central Florida ponds, Danyluk said she tested some growers" ponds.
"Every pond we"ve tested in last three growing seasons meets requirements of what"s in the new rule," she said.
Danyluk also said the university is considering offering a safety workshop, the standardized Produce Safety Alliance curriculum, in conjunction with next year"s Agritech.