Plant City strawberry growers are hoping the 2017 season will be kinder than the down year of 2016.
In agriculture, the weather can be a farmer’s best friend or worst enemy.
The latter was true of 2016, when Plant City strawberry growers universally found themselves in a big pinch: blazing hot winter months coupled with an unusually wet January led to a rough season. The weather altered the berries’ shapes, sizes and flavors, which led to fluctuations in the market.
Although things picked up around March, many growers were already feeling the effects of the damage to their berries.
“There was definitely bloodletting last year, if you will,” Wish Farms CEO Gary Wishnatzki said. “We lost several growers that aren’t growing this year, and shippers are out of business as a result.”
Wishnatzki and Plant City’s other area farms are hoping for business to pick up in 2017.
“Agriculture’s based on variables,” Fancy Farms owner Carl Grooms said. “A lot of those variables are determined by nature. You never know exactly how a season will be until you go through it and calculate at the end of the season.”
Because the winter months of 2015 and early 2016 were so hot, strawberry plants were unable to produce blossoms as they normally would. The heat instead caused the plants to produce green vegetation and stolons, or “runners,” and this drastically affected the amount of strawberries growers could pick early on.
That scenario, according to Wishnatzki, isn’t a recipe for good news.
“You always want to get good, early production when market prices are best,” he said. “Good December through February production is generally crucial to having a good year. It’s not just about producing numbers — it’s about producing them at the right time, when they’re at the highest demand.”
Last season’s early output, or lack thereof, was enough to negatively manipulate the shipping market, decreasing prices further than anyone would have liked and affecting sales for one of the biggest fruit-filled holidays in the industry.
“Last year was unusual in that we had such low production in January (and) into early February, when you typically would have Valentine’s Day promotions going on,” Wishnatzki said.
Although things did pick up after Valentine’s Day, growers say that the market’s downturn was substantial.
“It fell apart,” Grooms said. “The market dropped down to substandard prices. The volume came on so heavy that the shipping market collapsed and the price was cheap.”
Growers with additional products in the industry were able to bounce back more quickly than others facing the same challenges.
“One of the reasons we weathered the storm better than most is because we have our puree and freezer business,” Wishnatzki said. “We didn’t have to get down on our prices to the lowest common denominator. But a lot of growers had very, very low returns because they didn’t have outlets for their fruit.”
Some growers, including Grooms, turned to Wish Farms for processing to help ease the financial pains. Even then, there were some bumps in the road: Grooms said processing regulations had changed, requiring berries to be of a certain sweetness level in order to be processed — one farmers can’t control.
“There’s no way for us to put sugar out there on the strawberry fields to make the berries sweeter,” Grooms said.
With this year’s season underway, growers are hoping — and planning — for the best.
LEAVING IT TO CHANCE
No one can change the weather, but there are some ways to prepare for it. This year, Wish Farms growers planted later in October than usual. Now, Wishnatzki said, some growers have reported production increases of around 50% from last year.
Temperatures haven’t been quite as high as they were at this point last year, but are close enough to keep growers on their guard. A strawberry grower for 43 seasons, Grooms knows that growers simply have to play whatever hands they’re dealt.
“As a grower, there’s really nothing you can prepare in the beginning to help you know what you’re going to have throughout the season,” he said. “It’s all a luck thing.”
Although growers are trying to be optimistic, the market hasn’t always been kind this year.
“We have picked a fair volume for what we call our ‘early market,’” Grooms said. “Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, we picked a whole lot of berries and the price went down.”
Grooms and Wishnatzki said that the market has since recovered, but stated that the market isn’t always predictable, even with better production.
“We’d like to see a better average price for the season with better production,” Wishnatzki said. “At this point, our production is quite a bit ahead of last year. Average prices may be a little bit less than last year, but production is better.”
The growers are hoping for better weather and a stable market. Should those factors trend in their favor, their skills could help the local strawberry scene bounce back sooner than later.
“We just do the best we can with the best knowledge that we’ve got among our farm and the rest of the farmers, and the knowledge we get from our university systems,” Grooms said. “We leave our market up to the people that sell our berries.”
Contact Justin Kline at [email protected].