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Farms in East County witness strawberry shortage

Farmers sound off on a warm winter that generated a rough strawberry season.

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  • | 2:33 p.m. February 12, 2016
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Walking through rows of strawberries on his 465 acres, Tom O’Brien frowned.

Rows of small, still-green strawberries peppered the area that usually bursts with bright red berries at this time.

“This has been the season from Hell,” said O’Brien, owner of O’Brien Family Farms, located on State Road 64. “The last time it was this bad was when Florida had one of its worst freezes, in the 1980s.”

Record-breaking temperatures fed a warm winter that didn’t start cooling down until January, and that hurt the strawberry-growing season, he said. All across the state, fewer strawberries have been produced.

O’Brien estimates his sales were down 65% in January, a loss of about $840,000.

The crop is planted in September, and by December, the berries usually are ripe and ready for the U-Pick season.

That wasn’t the case two months ago. For five weeks, no strawberries grew.

“They just took the month off. Rough season is an understatement. The 2015-2016 season will go down in the annals of strawberry growing as the worst season since the 1980s, or maybe even that a grower or a retailer has ever had."

— Tom O'Brien, owner of O'Brien Family Farms

O’Brien said the ideal temperature for strawberries is the mid-70s during the day and 50s at night.

His vegetables, such as squash, have also taken a hit.

He planted 75 acres of squash a few weeks ago, and after cold morning and nighttime temperatures created frost, the crops died.

Some cooler weather would have helped the strawberries in December.

“It was 85 degrees during the day and 75 at night,” O’Brien said, while picking up and biting into a strawberry. “Strawberries and certain vegetables need chilling time at night, and they never got to have that this season.”

Six miles away at Hunsader Farms, strawberries are plucked from the plants as soon as they come in, said Rachel Hunsader, whose parents own the farm.

“People are picking faster than the strawberries are growing,” Hunsader said. “But the type of strawberries we grow, Fiesta, are made to be eaten right away, whereas O’Brien grows more strawberries that are made for shipping. Maybe that has made season worse for him.”

Sarasota’s Sweetgrass Farms, which has only been open for two strawberry seasons, noticed a slow start to the season.

Farm owner Kathy Demler said since the temperatures have cooled down over the last month, that the taste and quantity of strawberries has improved.

She also credits frequent hand care, such as cleaning the berries, removing mold and controlling the amount of water they get, with helping the berries flourish just in time for season’s end.

“It takes a lot of care to get that taste and quantity,” Demler said.

Typically, consumers stop picking strawberries in April, or whenever farms stop producing the fruit.

Supply and demand

Fewer berries aren’t making shoppers crave the fruit any less.

“Supply is light with high demand,” said Crystal Snodgrass, extension agent with Manatee County Extension Service. “The current market price is high, $16 to $20 per flat.”

Flats carry multiple pounds of strawberries in one-pound containers. How many berries the flat holds depends on its size.

Publix and Detwiler’s Farm Market currently charge at least $1 more for a pound of the berries than they did last January, produce employees said. Detwiler’s Produce Manager Hugo Jimenez said a flat that cost $17.99 last year costs $26.99 this season.

“People have complained that prices are higher this year,” Jimenez said.  “But we’re getting fewer strawberries in from O’Brien’s and other farmers.”

In Plant City, which is known for strawberry production and its annual Strawberry Festival, Parkesdale Farms, temporarily ran out of strawberries three weeks ago.

“That’s the first time that has happened in 30 years,” farm co-owner Jim Meeks said.

In 2015, the farm produced 3,800 to 4,000 berries per acre. Meek’s cousin and Operations Manager Matt Parke said this season an acre generates about 1,400 berries.

As the farmers look ahead to the final six to eight weeks of strawberry season, they hope cooler temperatures will continue to help strawberries bounce back.

But O’Brien worries a spell of warm weather could end the season on a sour note.

“The other morning it was 37 degrees and there was frost,” O’Brien said. “Some days our highs are 35, 55 and 60, and some weeks it’s 80 degrees. Mother Nature is messing with us this year.”


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