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    Growers draw short straw

    The elements make this year's strawberry season short on flavor, duration and earnings - the worst in 20 years.

    By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 4, 2003


    [Times photos: Skip O'Rourke]
    Laura Morgan piles more cucumbers with other vegetables for sale at Morgan's Farm Market on U.S. 41 south of Ruskin.

    DOVER -- More than a month ahead of schedule, the strawberry season in Hillsborough County is kaput, the victim of an erratic Florida winter that made this the worst crop in two decades.

    "I don't think anyone made money this year," said Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, based in Plant City. "We pride ourselves on our berries, but bless their hearts, nothing tasted good this year."

    Experts on Florida's $200-million annual strawberry industry say this was the worst season in 20 years, both for its shortness and the painfully low prices farmers received.

    Heavy rains in December along with cold weather in December and January dramatically lowered the yield, experts say. Then, warm and humid weather in late February and early March deadened the strawberries' flavor and invited disease.

    Last season, Florida strawberry farmers -- 90 percent of whom are in Hillsborough County -- produced about 600-million flats, according to the association.

    Final sales and production figures aren't yet available, but Hinton, whose association represents 125 growers and 7,000 acres, estimates production this year was down 25 percent to 30 percent.
    photo
    A cucumber plant thrives among strawberry plants destroyed by herbicide at Parkesdale Farms in Dover.

    In an industry that strives to sell flats for an average of $7 to $8 each, Florida farmers got as little as $2 a flat last month, normally the peak of the season.

    "It costs almost that much just to pick them and pack them," Hinton said.

    Hinton said things haven't been this bad since 1983, when a devastating freeze wiped out Tampa Bay's strawberries and citrus.

    The state's loss has been California's gain. Florida's biggest competitor is enjoying an unprecedented year of dry, mild weather -- perfect for lots of sweet berries.

    Across Hillsborough County, most farms and roadside markets are shutting down early.

    Goodson Farms in Balm will open its popular milkshake and shortcake stand for the last time Saturday, and then close until next season, manager Jimmy Lott said. Usually, the stand serves up strawberry desserts through the middle of May.

    "The strawberries think it's August, and they've just quit on us," Lott said.

    This week, Laura Morgan of Morgan & Sons Farm in Dover started to sound like a broken record as she turned away customer after customer with the bad news:

    "No, ma'am," she said for the umpteenth time Wednesday. "We don't have any more strawberries." "There was just too much rain; it was too hot," she said later. "The best I know, Florida strawberries are a thing of the past until December."

    Typically, Florida is winter headquarters for the U.S. strawberry supply, producing 15 percent of the nation's inventory. It is the second-largest strawberry producer behind California, where the season runs from April to July.

    Amid clear skies and mild temperatures, California already has planted more than 28,000 acres. That's a record for the industry, which generates more than $800-million in sales.

    Craig Chandler, who has been studying strawberries for 16 years at the University of Florida strawberry research center in Dover, said the extreme winter cold, coupled with heavy rains, led to low yields in the beginning of winter.

    A January freeze had farmers up all night fretting over their strawberries. The cold weather meant there were fewer strawberries ready to be picked, Chandler said.

    Then, February and March brought warm and humid weather that dulled the berries' taste.

    Even worse, robins pecked and grazed at nearly 4,000 plants, Hinton said. Usually they migrate through the area quickly, but cold weather to the north prompted the birds to stick around and feast, Chandler said.

    By early March, when local farmers were trying to sell whatever berries they could to break even, California dominated with its plentiful, sweet crop.

    "California just blew us out of the water," Hinton said.

    He said more Hillsborough County strawberry farmers than ever are trying to make money with second plantings of produce such as cucumbers. In a typical year, local farmers plant 3,000 to 4,000 acres of produce after their strawberries.

    This year, profit-needy farmers have planted more than 6,000 acres of salad fodder, Hinton said.

    And Roy Parke, patriarch of 80-acre Parkesdale Farms in Dover, figures the days of strawberry shortcake are numbered.

    "We'll hold on," he said, "for another two weeks."

    -- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com .

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