By J. Scott Angle
Without one of the most ancient of technologies, the wheel, we might not be celebrating the centennial of Wish Farms here in Plant City.
Its #AgIsAmerica story starts on the streets of Manhattan in a single pushcart selling fruits and vegetables. It continues with the Wishnatzkis migrating to Central Florida. It unfolds today with the Wish Farms name and pixie mascot on millions of clamshells in homes across the nation.
In addition to its compelling rags-to-riches arc, Head Pixie (yes, that’s the title on his business card) Gary Wishnatzki presents the family history as a century of progress. Gary highlights the role of science in the farm’s history he so lovingly documents in Generations of Sweetness: Stories That Shaped My Family and the Journey to Wish Farms.
That embrace of innovation manifests today in Gary’s pursuit of artificial intelligence-guided machine harvesting through Harvest CROO Robotics.
Innovation is where the histories of UF/IFAS and Wish Farms intersect. We’ve been delivering science to Florida growers for even longer than there have been Wishnatzkis growing strawberries in Plant City.
Last year, I spoke at the 100th anniversary of our North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna. This year, I plan to be at events marking a century of UF/IFAS science at our Everglades Research and Education Center, our Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), and our Hastings Agricultural Extension Center and our turf science program.
Our history plays out on farms like Wishnatzki’s. So I am not surprised but gratified to see UF/IFAS included in the Wish Farms story.
It’s there in his book on page 126. The photo of UF/IFAS strawberry breeder Vance Whitaker has a caption that credits him for being “instrumental in breeding new varieties of strawberries such as pineberry, which we market as Pink-a-Boos.”
Whitaker has used Wish Farms acreage for years as part of his trials of new berries, as did Vance’s predecessor, Craig Chandler. Vance also credits Gary with being a marketer and proponent of his best-flavored varieties like Sensation® and Medallion®. Vance has provided technical advice on transplants and varieties for Harvest CROO.
Wish Farms has also hosted research by the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center’s Natalia Peres involving the use of an ultraviolet light system to control a pathogen called powdery mildew.
Gary has asked Steve Sargent of the UF/IFAS Horticultural Sciences Department to evaluate new clamshell packages and shipping containers for cooling efficiency. And Yiannis Ampatzidis of the UF/IFAS ABE is also advising Gary on the use of artificial intelligence in robotic harvesting.
When I visited Gary in November, I could see from his dazzling year-old headquarters that he’s in this for the long haul. We talked in his treehouse lounge with curved walls and tilted windows that give it an Alice-in-Wonderland feel. I went down the wooden slide like a log on a flume. I marveled at the sculpture trees that give the space a cozy Hobbit feel. And the two of us grabbed strawberry-shaped guitars and had ourselves a ZZ Top moment days before the band headlined Pixie Rock in November.
Like its past, Wish Farms’ future is bound up in family. The successors to Gary and his wife Therese include son Nick, manager of public relations, and his husband Stephen Cramer in accounting. Gary’s daughter Elizabeth is also in the business and married to Vice President of Sales and Marketing James Peterson. Their sons Will and Joey could be fifth-generation Wish Farmers.
If they are, they’ll be able to turn to Vance’s successors for new varieties of berries, that edge of innovation that will keep local growers globally competitive for another century.
Happy 100th, Wish Farms.
J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).