High-tech alerts and the quest for a better berry

| Strawberry growers look to technology to help save money and increase production |

Sixty-five-year-old Carl Grooms has been growing strawberries for more than four decades, but it’s not routine, and never business as usual. As his business card attests, he is “still learning.”

“I’ve always had to dig my dollar out of the dirt,” says Grooms, who co-owns Fancy Farms on County Line Road in eastern Hillsborough County with his wife, Dee Dee.

Grooms learned to farm from his dad, the late C.T. Grooms. These days his son Dustin is farming with him, and he is using new technology to help defeat fungal diseases. Through the University of Florida Gulf Coast Research Center near Balm, he and other Florida strawberry growers can receive text and email alerts to help them know when, and what, to spray. “We really watch that; it saves us money,” says Grooms, who estimates he’s saved “quite a few thousand, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the five years he’s used it.

In the Kathleen area of Polk County, strawberry grower Welsey Borders says the alerts are “very accurate and very prompt.” He started using the system at Neat and Sweet Farms last year.

Dr. Natalia Peres, an associate professor at the Research Center, began developing the Strawberry Advisory System (SAS) in 2006. She proceeded with preliminary testing in 2009 and then released it to Florida growers in 2012. She estimates that 50 to 60 percent of the state’s strawberry growers have signed up for the free alert system, which helps them combat the fungal diseases Botrytis and anthracnose. Most growers are in the Plant City-Dover area, where the bulk of the region’s strawberries are grown.

Growers also can download a free application from Apple’s App Store for their iPhone. “We’re working on the Android version,” says Dr. Peres, who has received funding to develop a similar system for Florida blueberry growers.

SAS is available through the Agroclimate website at http:// agroclimate.org; it also can be accessed through the Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN) at http://fawn.ifas.ufl.edu.

Botrytis (caused by Botrytis cinerea) and anthracnose (caused by Colletotrichum acutatum) hurt strawberry production worldwide, according to UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Botrytis affects the floral parts of the plants both pre- and post-harvest. Anthracnose affects the foliage, runners, crowns, and fruit.

Alicia Whidden, a UF/IFAS extension agent for small fruits and vegetables in Hillsborough County, says the weather this season has been erratic, but overall “pretty good.” With rainy, gloomy weather, “the growers have to be vigilant to stay on top of fruit diseases,” she adds.

There were 11,400 acres of strawberries planted in Florida, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, up from 6,594 in 2007. The bulk of the acreage was located in Hillsborough County, where 8,937 acres were planted in 2012. Polk County had the second highest number, with 443 acres.

The strawberry season, which runs from December through April, is punctuated by the popular Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, dubbed the winter strawberry capital of the world.

Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Dover-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association, says strawberry prices have ranged from $13 to $15 a flat this season. “That’s about what we need to stay in business. It’s better than it has been in the past,” he explains.

The fruit quality has been excellent. “This year, the Radiance (variety) has been outstanding. The fruit is large, the color is good, and the taste is actually very good,” Parker states.

In general, he describes the past few months as a “pretty mild season” so far, with potentially higher yields. “What we would hear now is coffee shop talk. Everybody likes to brag,” he says. “We have been told generally speaking the volume is higher than in the past.”

Labor has been adequate, with the bulk of growers using domestic workers for picking. “We certainly encourage growers to look at a guest worker program,” he observes.

At Fancy Farms, Grooms is using both, but the majority are workers from Mexico and Honduras. “We’re bringing them in,” he says. “There’s lot of red tape in getting that accomplished. It’s quite a learning curve.”

They are required to pay a minimum wage of $10.19, plus supply living accommodations and transportation. But, at the very least, he knows the workers are going to arrive. “A lot of your domestic people here don’t do this type of work,” he explains.

In Dover, Cheryl Meeks, who formerly managed the Parksdale Farm Market with her husband Jim, says the season has been good. “We fell in love with the Radiance last year. They are sweet, big, and wonderful,” she explains.

About 75 to 80 percent of the state’s crop is in Radiance, which superseded the smaller Festival variety popular in the early 2000s.

At Clear Springs Farms in Bartow, they also were expecting a decent season. “The farm looks better than it’s looked in a couple of years,” reports Kyle Gashaw, a salesman. “The quality of the fruit has been really good so far.”

“The size and quality of what we harvested has been good. The size probably has been a little above average,” agrees Borders, who also grows vegetables and peaches. But, in the same breath, he also observes that volume has been light and pricing hasn’t made up for it.

Meanwhile, UF breeders are continuing their quest for a better berry. “Every year we put out about 10,000 seedlings to evaluate,” explains Dr. Vance Whitaker, an assistant professor at the Gulf Coast Research and Development Center. “It’s rare to find one that has all the necessary characteristics across locations and years. Probably one out of every 30,000 40,000 ever becomes a variety.”

The latest variety is called “Florida 127,” which is being grown on only about 150 acres statewide. Marketed as Sensation™ or Sweet Sensation™, it was selected as a seedling in 2009, according to Dr. Whitaker.

What is special about the new variety is that it consistently produces fruit that tastes as good — or better — than the current varieties. “The fruit itself has, on average, a higher sugar content,” explains Dr. Whitaker. “But it also just has a unique aroma profile that is a little more fruity.”

Its grandparent is Sweet Charlie, which was popular in the 1990s. “Unfortunately, it was a bit too soft and not good for shipping,” he says.

Grooms is one of the growers testing the new Florida 127. “My gut feeling is the public perception is going to be very positive on it,” he asserts. “Maybe we’ll get a little more money out of it. You never know.” That would be very welcome. “The growers haven’t been making enough money off of their crops and a lot of them have decided to quit,” he asserts.

While Grooms been “hanging in there,” he regards his land as his retirement plan. “My 401(k) is my land and my land is for sale,” he says. “If a person comes around with the right amount of money, I think I’ll cash in on my 401(k).”


photos of Fancy Farms by PEZZIMENTI

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