A new study by University of Florida researchers finds Florida strawberry growers would benefit by starting the growing season just a few weeks earlier each year. Doing so could help growers maximize their profits and help Florida’s strawberry industry to remain competitive in the global market. However, actually implementing the study’s findings is not that simple.
The research, published in the journal “Agricultural Systems,” finds Florida strawberry growers could charge higher prices by starting to harvest in mid-November instead of early December. Strawberry breeder, University of Florida Agriculture professor and study co-author Vance Whitaker, Ph.D., said it’s a good time to take advantage of market demand before strawberry growers in Southern California and Mexico ramp up production.
“By the time we get to the middle of March typically, production is getting so high in California, which is the big mammoth strawberry producer in the United States, that prices are so low that our growers are leaving fruit to rot in the field at that time because the prices aren’t making it worth for them to sell their fruit anymore,” said Whitaker.
Yet, harvesting in Mid-November would mean planting earlier too and the strawberry plants currently in Florida fields can’t take the September heat. “IF you pant strawberries at that time, the heat load will really hurt the plants and cause them to produce either not enough fruit when you actually want them to produce fruit and/or the quality would be too low in order to sell,” said Whitaker. “So in order to really achieve even a one week or two week earlier planning, we’re really going to have to change the genetics.”
Whitaker is testing several prototypes in growers’ fields to identify more heat tolerant varieties but even if they find an ideal strawberry type this growing season, it would still mean a long road ahead.
“It’s a slow process,” said Whitaker. “Even if we find a seedling in the field this year that meets the bill, there’s still a five to seven year commercialization process before that variety gets out there in large acreage and can make it to the supermarket.”
Strawberries are Florida’s second leading fruit crop behind citrus with a $366 million annual economic impact.