Bountiful Strawberry Crop Bonanza For Consumers

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Strawberries are very inexpensive right now. Some supermarkets are selling them at more than half off the normal price. The January freeze in Florida delayed the growing season and that harvest has overlapped with California's strawberries. But the good news for consumers has led to some bad press for farmers.


For us strawberry lovers, these are good times. A harvest delayed by chilly weather in Florida has overlapped with strawberry crop here in California. The abundance means supermarkets are selling berries for as low as $1.25 a pound. That's about half the normal cost. So while low prices are sweet for consumers, they are trouble for farmers.

Bobbie O'Brien of member station WUSF reports.

BOBBIE O'BRIEN: With prices so low, some Florida growers can't afford to harvest their strawberries, so they opened their fields to the public for picking.

Carl Grooms manages Fancy Farms in Plant City. He invited the local 4-H club to glean berries for free.

Mr. CARL GROOMS (Manager, Fancy Farms): They actually picked about 10,000 quarts of strawberries, but on that given day in my field, I probably had 300,000 quarts of berries in the field. And the concept of volume is what the general public don't understand.

O'BRIEN: But Grooms also has a few farm workers harvesting vast rows of lush, red berries to fulfill a special order.

Between the freeze and low prices, Grooms says it's bad right now.

Mr. GROOMS: You got kids studying economics and business and all that - this is the real world out here. You get your best education at the school of hard knocks. When it's hitting your wallet, you learn a lot, quick. This is going to be one of the least financial years we've had in years.

O'BRIEN: Compared to oranges, the Florida strawberry crop is small at $300 million. But Ted Campbell with the state's Strawberry Growers Association says the industry has had a devastating blow.

Mr. TED CAMPBELL (Executive Director, Florida Strawberry Growers Association): When you add it all together, we probably lost 25 to 30 percent of our entire production year-round, which means the farmers are generally struggling to get near to a break-even point.

O'BRIEN: So some berry growers pulled up their strawberry plants to make room for spring melons, squash and peppers. But what is the cycle of life for a farmer became a recent lead story for ABC News.

(Soundbite of ABC News broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Even in this wealthy country, nearly 15 percent of Americans are at risk of not having enough food to eat. So when food is thrown away on purpose, it gets a lot of people angry. In Florida this weekend, farmers are destroying their strawberry crop on purpose instead of harvesting it.

O'BRIEN: A strawberry grower featured in that story later said he received threats, and others got angry emails. That has farmers on the defensive, such as Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wish Farms, the state's largest supplier of berries.

Mr. GARY WISHNATZKI (President, Wish Farms): So that's one of the things that I think people are seeing these plants being chopped out, people think, well, the growers are just wasting this food. No, they're not. They're letting their melon crop come in so that two months from now, there's going to be melons in the stores. And if they didn't take the strawberry plants out, that melon crop would suffer and not grow.

O'BRIEN: Supermarkets don't usually buy from Florida growers at this time of year. Normally, the fruit is from California. But Wishnatzki was able to persuade Publix, one of the Southeast's largest grocery chains, to stock Florida strawberries. Company spokeswoman Shannon Patten says Publix also agreed to cut its prices.

Ms. SHANNON PATTEN (Spokeswoman, Publix Supermarkets): Really, it was just what could we do to stay in Florida a little longer and help our local farmers and really stimulate enough volume to help the growers move the product? And price will do that.

O'BRIEN: These record low prices for strawberries won't last. Once the Florida fruit is bought up, the cost is expected to climb.

For NPR News, I'm Bobbie O'Brien, in Tampa.

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