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Extreme Weather Ruins Florida Strawberry Crop

Weather Extremes ruin Florida's Strawberry season
Weather.com,
Apr. 04, 2003

DOVER, Fla. (AP) Hillsborough County's strawberry season has ended a month earlier than normal this year, the victim of an erratic Florida winter that made this the worst crop in two decades.

Extreme cold and heavy rains led to low yields in early in the season in December, said Craig Chandler at the University of Florida strawberry research center in Dover. Then, February and March brought warm, humid weather that dulled the berries' taste and made them susceptible to disease, he said.

About 90% of Florida strawberry farmers are in Hillsborough County. The state's strawberry industry usually generates $200 million in sales each year, with a season that runs from November through April.

"I don't think anyone made money this year," said Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, which represents 125 growers. "We pride ourselves on our berries, but ... nothing tasted good this year."

Hinton said it was the worst season since 1983, when a devastating freeze wiped out the Tampa Bay area's strawberries and citrus crops.

Florida growers produced about 600 million flats in the previous season, association officials said. Final sales and production figures weren't yet available for this year, but Hinton estimated they would be 25-30 percent lower.

Growers aim to sell flats for an average of $7 to $8 each, but they got as low as $2 a flat last month, normally the peak of the season, he said.

"It costs almost that much just to pick them and pack them," Hinton said.

Another problem was robins who destroyed thousands of plants, he said. Usually they migrate through the area quickly, but cold weather to the north prompted the birds to stick around and feast, Chandler said.

The state's loss has been California's gain. Florida's biggest competitor is enjoying an unprecedented year of dry, mild weather, perfect for sweet berries.

Typically, Florida is winter headquarters for the American strawberry supply. It is the second-largest strawberry producer behind California, where the season runs from April to July.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.