Strawberry picking challenge raises money for children’s programs

Strawberry growers regularly tout the red berry at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. Now there’s a new annual event: The Bright House Networks Strawberry Picking Challenge held by Wish Farms, a third-generation Plant City strawberry shipping firm.

The inaugural event held February 8 attracted more than 300 to Futch Farms in Plant City, where sponsored, strawberry-picking teams were judged on their speed and quality. Growers from around the state served as coaches or provided picking instruction.

The goal? To raise funds for the Redland Christian Migrant Association (RCMA), which offers pre-school and after-school programs for migrant laborers and other low-income groups. About $75,000 was raised.

“We hope we succeeded in bringing awareness not only to the hard work of our farm workers but also to the outstanding contribution that RCMA makes,” says Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms, a supplier of strawberries, blueberries, and select vegetables.

“The event overall was a huge success,” adds Amber Kosinsky, Wish Farms’ marketing director. “The weather was not ideal. It was dreary and rainy and cold. Despite that, we had a great turnout.”

A long-time RCMA supporter, Wish Farms has held an annual tennis tournament to raise funds to educate the children of migrant workers. But Wishnatzki envisioned something different – an event where professional strawberry pickers participated in a charity fundraiser that would raise public awareness about the challenges they endure.

The fundraiser also gave the public a chance to visit a strawberry farm and learn more about how berries are produced. It featured Radio Disney, balloon hats for children, a children’s u-pick area and games like strawberry beanbag tosses.

Twenty corporate teams, including amateur pickers and a pro coach, competed in relays for the title “Best Harvest Crew.” Top finisher was the Ed and Barbara Bergmann Team, lead by Coach Donnie Randall of Fancy Farms, which included Christel Yaffe, Amanda Lia, Shelley Chalmers, Cintron, Kenneth Parker (Florida Farm Bureau), and Wishnatzki. They received individual strawberry trophies and the ‘Strawberry Joe’ perpetual trophy.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam led the Fresh from Florida team. Other groups with teams included Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Monte Package Company, Patterson Companies, International Paper, Florida Strawberry Growers Association and Farm Credit of Central Florida.

Four professional pickers were featured in a Pro Showcase.

The event, emceed by Bay News 9 television anchor Veronica Cintron, also included RCMA children, two Tampa Bay Buccaneer cheerleaders, the Florida Strawberry Festival queen and court, and Little Miss Plant City, plus some mascots.

About 90 percent of Florida’s strawberry industry is from the Plant City/Dover area, which has ideal sandy, well-drained soil for strawberry growing. The industry is dependent upon immigrants to pick their crop; domestic workers often lack the physical stamina to pick berries hour after hour in the fields.

A typical strawberry picker earns $11 or $12 an hour while exceptionally skilled pickers make $20 an hour. Some are able to make in an hour what they may in a week in their own country.

RMCA runs 70 child-care centers for Florida’s rural poor – 18 of them in the Tampa Bay area. It also runs three charter schools, two in Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County.