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Huge Fla. strawberry harvest means lower prices at the store, smaller profits for growers
PLANT CITY, Fla. (AP) ' Folks come from all over to enjoy the Florida Strawberry Festival, where they will find shortcake eating contests, a berry queen and a strawberry production exhibit.
But behind the scenes of one of the state's largest festivals, strawberry farmers are bemoaning this year's larger-than-expected harvest ' meaning turning a profit will be difficult.
A warm winter in the Sunshine State has yielded a bumper crop of berries.
"We complained when it was too cold, and now we're complaining this year that it's too hot," said Ted Campbell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "It's a very challenging year."
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a pound of strawberries on March 2 was selling at major grocery stores for an average of $2.15 ' an eight-cent drop from the previous week and a 28-cent drop from last year at the same time.
Florida is the nation's biggest strawberry producer in January and February, while California is the largest in the spring. Florida takes advantage of its sunny weather and a unique harvest window ' November through February ' to sell berries worldwide. Many of Florida's strawberries are grown in the fertile land in between Tampa and Orlando, and farmers have celebrated the end of the harvest with a festival since 1930.
In recent years, Florida farmers have grappled with extreme cold and lost crops, and 2010 was an especially bad year.
But there's more to Florida's woes than weather.
"Because of the influx of Mexican berries, our prices have not gone up," said Peggy Parke, the Vice President of Parkesdale Farms in Dover, Fla. "Mexico just keeps pulling them over for low cost. I feel like the Mexican market has had a big effect on us this year as far as pricing."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that between Jan. 1 and Thursday, Mexico shipped 190 million pounds of strawberries to the U.S. During the same time, Florida shipped 185 million pounds nationwide.
Parke points out that in order for her farm to sell to large stores like Wal-Mart, it must go through inspections and meet regulations that Mexican farms may or may not be doing.
Campbell also said that several farmers added acreage this year, which contributed to the situation.
"The industry was pretty optimistic going into the start of this season, but it turned out not to be a highly profitable season," he said. "Some are struggling to make a profit. Some small players may not be able to survive."
While farmers won't be able to fully assess the results of their crops until later this year, the glut is good for berry lovers. Roadside stands dotting the Plant City area were selling six pounds of berries for $4.99.
"Customers should be able to get a lot of berries for reasonable prices," Parke said. "The berries have been sweet all year. I don't know one time that I didn't like the taste of the berries. We have had some of the sweetest berries we've ever had."
Lori Martz, a travel agent from Minnesota who has run a chocolate-dipped strawberry stand every year for 30 years at the Strawberry Festival, cheered the lower prices.
She said she's buying flats for $11 this year, $1 less than last year.
Business overall at the festival is much better this year than in the past. She's not sure if it's a sign of the economy rebounding or because she's able to make more of a profit thanks to the depressed strawberry prices.
"Business has kept going down, down, down for years," she said. "This year it's bumped back up."