How Plant City became the winter strawberry capital of the world
Plant City was once known for producing lumber, cotton, citrus and cattle. Here's what changed.
Nicknamed the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, Plant City’s farms produce millions of berries each year. In fact, Hillsborough County produces about 15 percent of the nation’s strawberries and nearly all of its winter berries.
But this wasn’t always the case. Historically, Plant City’s big industries were lumber, cotton, citrus and cattle. That was before the big freeze of the late 1800s.
“After that big freeze, it was too challenging for those farmers to produce those things,” says Jennifer Morgan, public relations and media representative for the Florida Strawberry Festival. “So there was a small group of little trail blazers that started to plant berry plants. They were shocked at how resilient those plants were to the frost and the cold weather, and so that’s how it started. The other farmers just jumped on board with them. They were like, ‘Wow, this is easy.’ And then strawberry farming just took off.”
Then railroad magnate Henry Plant settled in the town. He built a railway from Plant City (yep, the town is named after him) to Tampa, allowing farmers to sell their berries far and wide.
Grateful for the berries’ economic impact, farmers and volunteers organized the first Florida Strawberry Festival in March 1930.
“It was a great way for us to really thank these little things that had created so much in such a little town of Plant City and really put us on the map,” says Jennifer, a Plant City native and strawberry farmer’s daughter. In its early days, the festival’s hallmarks included an agricultural program, penny voting, small produce stands and perhaps a dunk tank.
Nearly a century later, the festival has ballooned into an 11-day that attracts as many as 600,000 visitors to Plant City. (The town’s residential population is around 40,000.)
In addition to the agricultural program and festival queen scholarship pageant, the modern Florida Strawberry Festival features modern attractions like rides and A-list concerts. Among past headliners are Willy Nelson, Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton.
And of course there’s the food. Strawberry everything. Tacos, salsa, sundaes, milkshakes, pancakes and more, all showcasing the stars of the show: Plant City strawberries. And let’s not forget the shortcake. An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 shortcakes are sold during the festival.
There’s even a berry named for the event: the Festival Berry. As new berry varieties, dessert concoctions and concert headliners bring the festival into the modern era, at its heart the festival remains unchanged: a family-friendly, volunteer-driven celebration of the ruby-red gems that put Plant City on the map.
“The strawberry is still king in the city of Plant City,” Jennifer says. “This little piece of Americana has stood the test of time.”
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