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Originally published Monday, April 5, 2010 at 4:41 PM

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Strawberry prices drop as late harvest hits market

It's a good spring for strawberry lovers: Prices are unusually low in many places because cold weather delayed Florida's harvest ...

The Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It's a good spring for strawberry lovers: Prices are unusually low in many places because cold weather delayed Florida's harvest to coincide with California's, and the two states are flooding the market with cheap berries.

Record numbers of strawberries for this time of the year were picked in the U.S. last week — 80 million pounds, said Gloria Chillon, director of marketing for Driscoll's, a major berry producer and distributor based in Watsonville, Calif.

Shoppers can thank the freezing weather and rain at the beginning of the year.

Florida is the nation's biggest strawberry producer in January and February, while California is the largest in the spring. This year, Florida's coldest temperatures in recent memory damaged strawberry fields and delayed harvests.

At nearly the same time, heavy rains swept across Southern California's berry-growing regions, raising fears their crops also could be damaged.

Prices paid to U.S. strawberry growers reached record highs, averaging $2.18 per pound in January and $1.55 per pound in February compared with 2009's averages of $1.16 and $1.28 in those two months. But then Florida's harvest got going in earnest.

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, explained that farmers plant different varieties of berries in hopes of harvesting on a staggered schedule.

This year, the varieties matured late and mostly all at once, and by the beginning of March, "every plant was bursting loose" with berries, he said. Farmers harvested as much as they could, Campbell said, but "you couldn't have put enough labor in the field to pick it all."

California, meanwhile, began to see fruit on plants that had gone dormant during the rains and is now producing many more berries than usual for this time of year, Chillon said.

Instead of letting the fruit die in the fields, Gary Wishnatzki, 54, opened his fields in Plant City for folks to pick their own berries — for free.

"It really hurts a grower to have to lose your crop," said Wishnatzki, Florida's largest strawberry shipper and grower. "It's like your baby."

Other Florida farmers ended up plowing over their strawberry plants at the end of March because they needed to make room for spring melons and other produce, Campbell said.

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"We have harvested as much fruit as possible every week since November," he said, explaining that Florida's berry season normally ends about now anyway, and it makes more sense for farmers to concentrate on their next crops rather than to try to sell strawberries at prices that are now unusually low.

He objected to news reports portraying farmers as "greedy" for not picking their fruit after prices dropped as "unfair and untrue."

Farmers have to pay for labor, packaging, trucking and cooling the fruit, he said. This spring, strawberry prices didn't always cover those costs, he said.

"It was like a perfect storm that developed this year," Wishnatzki said. "The events of this season were totally unprecedented."

He said he was fortunate because he was able to freeze many of his berries and sell them to others, who are turning the fruit into juice.

Other farmers have been helped by grocery-store chains that have agreed to buy berries in bulk.

Publix Super Markets — whose headquarters are in Central Florida, not far from the state's large strawberry fields — met with Florida growers recently and agreed to aggressively market their strawberries with special sales in the coming weeks, spokeswoman Shannon Patten said.

"Typically at this time of year, we exit Florida and start sourcing our berries from California," she said.

Last year at this time, she added, a pound of strawberries cost $3.49, compared with this year's $1.25.

"Everybody wins," Patten said. "The local economy gets rejuvenated by helping local growers. Customers win because they get a great quality product at an unbelievable price."

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