Researchers find growing challenges for Florida’s strawberry industry

From Fox 13 News | 23 May 2023

Overview of strawberries in the U.S. market, complemented by charts from Agronometrics. Original published on May 19, 2023. 

The changing climate could knock Hillsborough County out of the sweet spot for strawberries, according to findings in a new report.

The Environmental Defense Fund released the report Thursday, spotlighting Florida’s strawberry growing industry and its growing challenges. The report used a process-based crop model developed by researchers at the University of Florida in addition to climate models.

“Turns out strawberries begin to feel heat stress at 85 degrees. And because we’re going to see a 50% increase in days over 85 degrees in Hillsborough County, that’s going to have a significant impact on how strawberries can be grown there,” said Dawn Shirreffs, the Florida director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Hillsborough County produces the most strawberries in the state, and that’s on track to drop by 2050 due to climate change, the report found.

“Overall, it was about 11% decrease by 2050. And you don’t flip the switch in 2049 and start to see the impacts. They’ll happen gradually over time and not necessarily in a straight line, but this means we have enough information to start to plan ahead,” said Shirreffs. “There’s a sweet spot in Florida’s early yield, and that’s when our farmers in this state make the most money out of producing strawberries. Unfortunately, the way that the climate dynamics are going to work against this profitability is that 17 percent decreases are predicted in that really economically important yield zone just because of these killing degree days.”

strawberry prices by ori

Source: USDA Market News via Agronometrics.
(Agronometrics users can view this chart with live updates here)

To adapt, the report said farms can move production farther north in the state, but that can create barriers for smaller farmers. Other options for adaptation include exploring ways to change the crop.

“We see Wish Farms has already started some research about creating hybrids that can be a little bit more heat tolerant,” said Shirreffs. “We can look at new shading opportunities. There’s different ways that you can reduce the heat stress on the strawberries with those technologies and then shifting planting dates.”

Barry Lawrance owns Bearss Groves Farmer’s Market in Hillsborough County and currently grows strawberries in Plant City. He said they are moving their operation to a different part of the county for convenience.

“We’re going to Lutz. We’re going to have 10 acres in Lutz this year, which is about 2 miles from here,” said Lawrance. “It’s a little bit closer to home for us too, so it’s easier to manage.”

He said the growing season for strawberries this year was good, and flooding in California helped the prices in Florida.

“It was an extended season, actually. We were able to pick all the way up to Mother’s Day this year,” said Lawrance. “We do like the colder environment. It does help with the berries also and another challenge we have in Florida a lot is the fungus and the bugs. It’s a lot of challenges in Florida. It’s why we do get to grow them over the cooler months.”

Some of the reports suggested adaptations for strawberry growers include automation, sustainable cooling, aquifer recharging and shading. Lawrance shared some of the changes he’s exploring for strawberry growing on his farm.

“We’ve actually thought about growing under cover. There are a lot of very big grants and stuff that the natural resources departments have where you can grove things under cover. So, we thought about maybe pursing that in the future,” said Lawrance.

Whatever the future holds, strawberries are a part of Tampa Bay’s culture, something growers say is worth fighting for.

“I mean the reality is we’ve grown strawberries in Plant City for decades, not Bearss Groves necessarily but strawberries in general. So, I feel like Plant City’s going to keep up the fight,” said Lawrance. “You can move south, and then there are berries grown in Floral City which is north of us. So there’s definitely different areas you can possibly do it. I just think the whole strawberry environment is really central Hillsborough or more east Hillsborough County. The Strawberry Festival’s there. We can’t leave the Strawberry Festival.”

EDF’s director said if strawberry production does drop over the next decade or so, that means higher prices for consumers and a higher cost on the environment due to shipping and trucking from other states.

The News in Charts is a collection of stories from the industry complemented by charts from Agronometrics to help better tell their story.

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