Around the Bay

Business news from around Tampa Bay

By Times Staff
Published November 19, 2007

Plant City

Growers bask in '06 success, but hope for more this year

Stores around the country stocked their shelves with Florida produce after a cold snap swept through the western United States last year.

It was California's loss and Hillsborough's gain, according to a recent county report.

Officials estimate Hillsborough farmers sold $763.2-million worth of agricultural products in 2006, a 5.4 percent increase from 2005. And local growers sold $272.5-million worth of strawberries - 36 percent of the county's total agricultural sales.

"I've never gotten paid that much for berries since I started farming," said Tony Chavez, 37, who grew up in a family of migrant workers. Now he runs his own strawberry fields and works as a foreman for grower Billy Simmons.

"I would say 2006 was a banner year," said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wishnatzki Farms. But farmers are wondering what this growing season has in store.

"This is just the start of it, so nobody knows," said Dennis Carlton, owner of Carlton & Carlton Ranch.

Workers were planting most of Hillsborough's more than 8,300 acres of strawberry fields late last month.

"A lot of the growers are kind of like a kid waiting on Christmas," said Shawn Crocker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

St. Petersburg

These elves untangle a holiday chore

Nick Schriver remembers untangling Christmas lights in the cold on the farm in rural Ohio. His family would always put a big star atop the grain silo 40 feet in the air so the decoration could be seen by neighbors miles away. He also remembers checking strings of lights for that one bad bulb.

In 2002, Schriver decorated 66 homes in Columbus, Ohio. Today he's in the midst of the preholiday flurry to serve about 150 area clients with his Decorating Elves, which decorates people's houses.

Sales are projected at $250,000 with a growth rate of 50 percent per year. Schriver, 28, got the idea for Decorating Elves while looking at exotic displays on huge homes. He figured those rich people couldn't have done it themselves. He created fliers and promised neighbors a no-hassle experience for a few hundred dollars.

The typical customer pays about $1,200, Schriver said, but that includes a custom design with 10,000 to 15,000 lights.


Boat builder hopes trip lures investors

Six months ago, boat builder Ralph Brown and his brother, Bob, embarked on a risky publicity stunt: An oceanic journey from New York to Bermuda and back, in one of Ralph's 21-foot flats boats.

They made the trip and returned home with stories of big waves and a whale and a sense of having accomplished their mission of proving the vessel's seaworthiness.

So what happened next?

Since his trip, Ralph Brown's Dream Boats has sold only three boats (the cost of his vessels range from $10,000 to $30,000) though he says he has received 400 requests for information from people all over the country.

"I didn't expect people to start coming in and buying boats from me," he said. "The trip did pretty much everything I wanted it to. It gave us credibility."

Credibility, he says, with potential investors. Brown said he's trying to raise $5-million in private investments and eventually go public. Once the company goes public, he wants to raise $15-million. Since the trip, he's raised about $50,000.

Taking the kind of risk he did "shows you're serious," said Brown, 48.

Brown got some good news: He's in the Guinness Book of World Recordsfor having made "the longest nonstop ocean voyage in a flats boat."