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PLANT CITY, FL — Florida fields around Plant City are literally bursting with fruit – half the winter strawberries Americans eat are grown within a 50-mile radius of here. Two decades ago growers were happy to have strawberries to market by Christmas. Now that window has rolled back to before Thanksgiving, which means in December the crop ramps up to near-peak production.

Twenty years ago, any berry that came in before Christmas brought a premium with it. Now, even though the start of the deal has rolled all the way back to the earlier parts of November, that premium still applies. Early season and the Valentine’s Day window are peak markets for strawberries.

Gary Wishnatzki

“Now Thanksgiving is the initial target that we shoot for,” says Gary Wishnatzki of Plant City-based Wish Farms, a four-category player in the berry market with operations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“Early November is when we normally begin harvesting with these varieties we’re growing. In December we’ll be harvesting all of the fields, some that haven’t started yet. Around Valentine’s Day is when we’ve typically been hitting our peaks the last few years with these Florida-bred varieties.”

Much of the Florida industry’s success can be attributed to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), which has a vibrant research and development program. Over the past two decades, new varieties out of IFAS have created an upward spiral that culminates in the “Sweet Sensation”, which has rapidly become the favored cultivar of Florida strawberry growers since it’s release in 2013.

“Sweet Sensation is a variety we really love here, it’s producing some beautiful berries six weeks after planting,” Wishnatzki says. “We’re looking forward to a big December here. The fields really look great.”

IFAS Strawberry Breeder Dr. Vance Whitaker

“Sweet Sensation” and many other varieties have arrived under the direction of IFAS Strawberry Breeder Dr. Vance Whitaker, who works closely with Florida Foundation Seed Producers, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association and Ekland Marketing Company to license and market UF/IFAS varieties in Florida and around the world.

“Sweet Sensation” produces plump, bright red fruit that’s aromatic, notably sweeter than previous varieties and lasts longer in consumer refrigerators. Yields are exceptional throughout the season. There will be a handful of other varieties grown in Plant City this year, but “Sweet Sensation” will comprise the bulk of the crop.

“Sweet Sensation”

While Florida’s market window opens six weeks sooner than it used to, there has been little market creep on the other end of the deal. While Mexico has crept into the mid-winter market as consumer demand for strawberries and berries in general has skyrocketed, Florida usually manages to maintain a solid market through March.

“Historically Florida goes until April,” Wishnatzki says. “We’re going to have a fairly good market window in March this year once Mexico starts to wind down. And Oxnard, CA, there’s a little less acreage there [this season] so we expect that we may have a little spot in March that we haven’t had in recent years.”

Florida will have plenty of berries to bring to market.

“We’re close to 2000 acres this year under the Wish Farms umbrella; the industry reports somewhere up around 11,000 acres total,” Wishnatzki says. “Our production should exceed somewhere over 4 million, maybe 5 million crates.”

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