Everglades Research & Education Center

UF/IFAS study: Strawberry growers must pick, harvest earlier for best profit

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida strawberry growers must produce more fruit earlier in the growing season — in November and December – to keep a competitive advantage in the global market, a new University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences study shows.

Florida and California combine to produce 99 percent of the United States’ strawberries, and Florida ranks as the biggest producer of winter strawberries, with a value of $366 million annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But growers and UF/IFAS researchers are concerned because the industry faces increasing supplies from Mexico and California and volatile market prices. Mexico has emerged as the major competitor for the Florida strawberry industry, the study says. Fresh strawberry imports from Mexico reached 160,000 metric tons – or 360 million pounds — in 2014, while Florida production was about 200 million pounds.

To help alleviate those challenges, producers need to start picking in mid-November, instead of early December, said Vance Whitaker, a UF/IFAS associate professor in horticultural sciences and a strawberry breeder. This is when domestic supply is low and prices are high,

“If they can’t do this or lower their costs significantly, it may be difficult for them to stay in business,” Whitaker said.

Researchers also found growers need to produce more than they have in the past before the middle of December. After mid-December, yields would ideally be steady and smooth, not having extreme highs and lows into March, Whitaker said. The optimal yield pattern over the season, if achieved, could increase growers’ profit by $3,000 per acre, said Zhengfei Guan, a UF/IFAS food and resource economics assistant professor and co-author of the study.

Strawberry yield must peak during the first six to eight weeks of the growing season, the study says. Too much supply from Florida later in the growing season from Florida will lower prices and reduce profit, Whitaker said.

“This kind of yield pattern will result in price/volume combinations that will increase their profits,” he said. “In order to help them do this, we need to develop new varieties and horticultural practices that will help them accomplish these changes in yield patterns.”

Whitaker and Guan work at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Florida. Their study is published in the journal Agricultural Systems.

Caption: UF/IFAS strawberry breeder Vance Whitaker shows some strawberries. Whitaker, an associate professor in horticultural sciences co-authored a study with Zhenfei Guan, a UF/IFAS assistant professor in food and resource economics, that says Florida strawberry growers need to plant and harvest earlier in the growing season to achieve healthier profits. Strawberries are a $366 million-a-year crop in Florida.

Credit: UF/IFAS file.

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