Delays, Disease Have Strawberry Growers Hoping Season Picks Up
by PAUL CATALA
The outlook so far isn’t currently as strong as growers would like it to be, but there’s promise the 2022-23 strawberry season will pick up as the season grows on.
Wael Elwakil, a fruit and vegetable agent for UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County in Seffner, says the 2022-23 growing season has been “very tough” in general, but strawberries specifically have had “kind of a bumpy ride from the very beginning.”
Elwakil says Hurricane Ian delayed strawberry planting for some growers. Some of that planting was anywhere from seven to 12 days behind schedule because of the storm.
Elwakil says by the time strawberry fields were refurbished and bed plastic was replaced, plants had to re-bed.
“That’s a big window to get pushed back as far as planting,” says Elwakil, adding cold temperatures and frost around Christmas and rain for about three weeks didn’t help. “We lost quite a bit to fruit drop, so that wasn’t good.”
Elwakil says the 2022-23 season depends on supply and demand. Last year, the season end had substantial production but no market due to produce from California and Mexico impeding on the Florida share.
However, newer varieties of strawberries are helping expand the Florida market. Those include the Pineberry — a whitish strawberry cultivar with red seeds and pineapple-like flavor, Brilliance — a firm berry with a substantial shelf life, and Medallion— a short-day variety with intense flavor being grown on about 1,200 acres in Florida.
“Now, we’re hoping that the production will pick up the rest of the season and we can catch up to previous years,” says Elwakil. “It’s not just about just how much we can produce; it’s about how much we can produce and sell.”
Dustin Grooms, farm manager at Lakeland’s Fancy Farms, is a little more optimistic about the season. He says the season has been “pretty good” at the farm. He says production started slow but has been picking up mid-season.
Grooms, a Lakeland native whose father, Carl Grooms, started Fancy Farms in 1974, has been in the industry his entire life.
“This year, it’s kind of weird. It was slow at the beginning; everyone seems to be off. But we’ve kind of changed some of the varieties, so some of my varieties have been picked a lot more early on this year than others, we’re currently just ahead of last year,” he says. “We’re off to a better start.”
Grooms says even with increased inflation, prices have been strong so far this season, but it’s a “long season, and we’re just getting into the heart of the crop in the next 10 days.”
“We’ve got to do everything we can to keep quality up,” he says, saying the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day are big events for increased sales. “It’s the weeks after we worry about.”
Grooms says the hurricanes had logistical impacts on planting due to lost covering and moss and tree cleanup. He says so far, he’s only had to run water to protect from frost and freeze damage twice.
Another issue confronting Florida’s strawberry growers this season has been pestalotia, a plant disease causing leaf and fruit spots that eventually infects roots and crowns, causing plants to die.
At Parkesdale Farms in Plant City, Farm Manager Matt Parke says hurricanes before and after planting helped foster pestalotia, affecting pollination and flowering.
“But so far, I’m ahead of last year on average, even though industrywide, it’s behind,” he says.
Parke says he also sees Central Mexican farms sending high volumes of fruit over the border at higher prices because there’s no domestic competition. He says there’s good fruit in Florida, just not a substantially high volume.
“Looking at the fields, I think we’re going to have a heavy take here for the next two to three weeks, maybe even a little bit longer, but then peter out and come back in March,” he says.
Generally, Parke foresees an average to less-than-average harvest season.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a high-volume year, even though we’re going a little longer. I think it’s the plant period and the weather – I don’t think it’s going to be a substantial difference, but I definitely think it’s going to be less,” he predicts.
And less is what Nick Wishnatzki is anticipating at Plant City’s Wish Farms and its approximately 2,200 marketed Florida acreage.
Wishnatzki is the Wish Farms public relations manager and the fourth generation to work the farm.
To date for the 2022-23 season, Wishnatzki says the December cold snaps affected yields and volumes are down so far from where the company would like to be, particularly with strawberries.
“It has been a little bit of a challenge here in the early part of the season with the cold. For whatever reason, it just seems like – I don’t know if it’s the timing of the cold snaps and where the crop is – but it just seems like we’re just a little under where we want to be,” he says.
So far, Wishnatzki said he’s heard from other growers who have had some volume issues due to the cold and Wish Farms has so far dealt with some issues due to pestalotia.
“Our team has done a really good job about containing it but…hopefully moving forward in the future, we can get some solutions for that industry-wide issue,” he says. “I think it will ultimately be a successful season. Every year we experience our ups and downs and challenges, but things always seem to work out in the end. I’m pretty optimistic.”