Some farmers in the strawberry capital of the world are souring on the fruits of their labor.
Cold snaps, falling prices and worker shortages have combined to convince some farmers to scale back on strawberries, leading to a decline in acreage of Plant City's top crop for the first time in at least a decade.
"I'd like to think it's going to improve and get better," said Joe Gude, whose Brandon Farms has downsized from 457 acres to 200 acres over the past few years. "But if it continues on the path it's going, it's pretty scary."
Florida's strawberry farmers long had the winter to themselves, but competitors in California and Mexico have encroached in the past decade. With more berries on the market, sale prices for a standard eight-pound strawberry flat this time of year can be less than the cost of growing, picking, and packing them. Store prices, meanwhile, are flat or slightly down compared to this time last year.
A recent bulletin from the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave a concise assessment: "Supply heavy. Demand very light. Market lower."
Though some farmers point to prices as the reason for falling acreage, others blame labor concerns. Like many in the agriculture business, strawberry farmers are increasingly fed up with current immigration laws that, they say, stand in the way of keeping a steady supply of reliable workers. Those who say they can no longer attract enough workers domestically are turning to guest worker programs, though many regard them as dysfunctional and cost-prohibitive.
Gary Wishnatzki, the owner of Wish Farms, told The Tampa Bay Times (http://bit.ly/1Gzh6J6) he planted fewer strawberry acres this year out of fear he wouldn't have enough workers.
"If we planted more acres, we couldn't get them picked," he said.
Some farmers have responded by venturing into other crops, including blueberries and cantaloupe. Others have sold berries to be processed as juice. Meantime, growers are trying to stay positive about a crop they've devoted their lives to.
"It's in people's blood," said Wishnatzki. "This is what they do, this is what they know."