It’s been an upside-down strawberry season that went from warm weather to cold temperatures and rainy days.
This time of year, Fancy Farms owner Carl Grooms is used to seeing rows of juicy, sweet strawberries across his 230-acre farm.
But Grooms, and other growers like him, have had anything but a normal strawberry season. Unusually warm weather in November and December and heavy rains in January have left Florida strawberry plants looking a little too green.
Grooms started his farm with his wife, Dee Dee, in 1974 and is currently harvesting his 42nd strawberry
“I’m a veteran farmer, but honestly, no one has seen a season start out like this,” Grooms said.
The crop has produced far less than what Grooms collects in a typical season — and looks far different.
In an ideal season, Grooms hopes for cool weather in November and December. Colder temperatures allow the strawberry plant to produce blossoms, which eventually bloom into the favorite red fruit found in supermarkets across the United States.
But the uncharacteristically warm weather has caused a significant shortage of berries in the early part of the season. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, Florida temperatures in autumn were the highest on record, including temperatures as high as 93 degrees in November and December.
The excessive heat prevented strawberry plants from creating blossoms, instead producing more green vegetation and runners, also called stolons. A plant’s energy that focuses on producing stolons is deflected from producing strawberries, resulting in a smaller, or even fruitless, plant. Both strawberry varieties that Grooms planted, Radiance and Florida Sensation, produced runners.
“The elements of nature we have little control over,” Grooms said. “It’s hard to dial in perfect weather in Florida. That was a big added expense. We had to cut the runners five times, normally we only cut them twice during the season.”
Grooms did see some berries early in the season: smaller, elongated berries, known as “nibblers” or bullet berries, grew from his Radiance variety.
“That’s another environmental phenomenon that we have no control over,” Grooms said.
Though bullet berries are accepted in the marketplace, they are smaller and skinnier than the average strawberry, meaning that more are needed to fill a box of berries. The first few pickings of the season produced bullet berries before the strawberry plant began growing the average-sized berry. Because the odd-shaped berries are so small, Grooms’ ratio of flats he picks per acre also is off.
“I expect 3,500 flats per acre in a good season,” Grooms said. “We’ve picked 650 acres so far this season. That’s way behind what it should be, about 50% off.”
Shad Simmons, of Simmons Farms, has seen many of the same phenomenons. On his 130-acre farm, he harvested between five to 10 flats per acre for January. Last year at this time, he was harvesting 100 flats per acre. Like Grooms, he also has seen a number of the smaller, bullet berries.
“Stress from the heat made the plants do abnormal things,” Simmons said. “We don’t have a variety that can handle the heat.”
The production of bullet berries and the lack of bigger berries has driven up the price of strawberries in stores.
“The bigger the fruit, the bigger the poundage,” Simmons, who grows Radiance berries, said. “That will make more packages. It’s all supply and demand.”
This year, Simmons’ workers have been able to pick his entire farm in one day because there aren’t as many berries. Out of 2,000 flats of berries that were picked on Friday, Jan. 29, Simmons had to throw out roughly 300 to 400 flats of berries — about 15 to 20% of his crop, because of damage from a week of heavy rain in January.
“Damage comes from long rains that go on for a few days without drying,” Simmons said. “The berry absorbs the water and starts to crack.”
“When it’s raining, the sun isn’t shining,” Grooms said. “The berries aren’t ripening up. The berry will not be as sweet as it should be.”
Now that the warm weather has ended, cool weather is finally producing a larger number of strawberry blooms. If it stays dry, growers from all over Florida will likely see at least one surge in production at the end of February — and possibly again at what would normally be the end of their season.
With cooler temperatures in January, Grooms has finally started to see more blooms popping up on his farm — some even producing four blooms per plant.
He expects that he’ll see a plethora of berries in mid-February and has a gut feeling that the plants will produce once more after that. The time a bloom appears on a plant through the full growing period of a strawberry is about 25 days. When it’s cold, it could take a few days longer.
“We could potentially pick more berries in March, and we hope the demand goes up,” Grooms said.
The season typically ends in the middle of March, when California’s crops begin to drive Florida out of the market.
“Hopefully this year we can go the entire month of March with better berries and more of them,” Grooms said.
Even if the season does have a surge late next month, the demand for strawberries needs to continue on the East Coast. This is because both California and Florida will be in the market at the same time, and Florida will be producing berries later than usual.
“A steady supply to control the market is always better,” Simmons said. “I expect California will have berries by the end of March. When it gets too big for them, they start moving east. It’s our quality versus California’s volume.”
As Plant City strawberries begin making later appearances in stores, Grooms encourages shoppers to buy American-grown berries. The competition from Mexico, which has about 25,000 acres, can also drive Florida growers out of the market later in the season.
“A lady on a budget will buy the cheapest berry there and not care where it’s produced from,” Grooms said. “If buyers on the East Coast begin to buy out of Mexico, it hurts us. We rely on American-buying people.”
Contact Emily Topper at firstname.lastname@example.org.