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Berry growers say freeze costs $15M - so far

But they expect the crop to rebound later in the season.

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET, Times Staff Writer
Published February 1, 2008


PLANT CITY - Last month's freeze has already cost strawberry growers at least $15-million, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

That's significant damage - and worse than growers expected - but it's too soon to tell what the overall impact will be, said Shawn Crocker, the association's executive director.

The indirect impact, including pickers' revenue and packing supplies, could total another $15-million, he said.

"When you talk to growers, they breathe a sigh of relief because they did not physically lose the core plant," he said. "They've got an opportunity to rebound later in the season. The question is, are they going to rebound in time."

In the weeks following the freeze, many growers said damage seemed minimal.

But as more berries bloom, problems are starting to pop up. Many berries are deformed, which means growers can sell them only at lower prices, if at all.

"The plants have just not rebounded like they should have," said Billy Simmons, who lost about 20 percent of his crop this year.

The culprit, experts say, could be the winds that blew as temperatures dropped and farmers sprayed water on their crops to coat them with ice.

"When the wind blows and you're putting water down for the blanket of protection, you're blowing it away from the areas where that water is intended to go," Crocker said.

Strawberry production is down more than 30 percent from last year's level at this time, he said. And it might not bounce back until after Valentine's Day.

That will affect berry shipments out of state, Crocker said, but local markets should still have plenty of berries.

What does all this mean for strawberry prices? They're higher right now. But they'll likely go down as supplies increase.

That's good for consumers, but bad for growers, who might have a tougher time making a profit this year, Crocker said.

About 90 percent of Florida's strawberry industry is in Hillsborough County, he said. Last year, the state's growers saw about $272-million in revenue.

Federal aid is unlikely, Crocker said, because such appropriations require at least a 35 percent loss.

"We're not going to push the issue too hard, because we want to save that opportunity for when we have a truly catastrophic loss," Crocker said.

With strawberry supplies down, many migrant workers are struggling, said Guadalupe Lamas, a nurse at the San Jose Mission in Dover.

"We have a lot more people coming into the food pantry looking for food," she said.

Some workers have left town to find work elsewhere, Crocker said.

"That scares us, because if the labor's not here when it does get good in March, are we going to have the labor available to get out there and get those berries out of the field?" he said.

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 813 661-2454.