Strawberries are big business in Florida, covering 10,500 acres across the state and providing a farm-gate value of around $350 million a year.
During the winter, Florida serves as the primary supplier of the popular red fruit to the entire eastern portion of the United States, ranking second in the nation behind California. The majority of the Sunshine State’s strawberries are grown in and around Plant City, befittingly known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.”
The relatively new Pitzer Wheel, which has been covered in previous Blueprints articles, is an automated strawberry picker developed recently by Harvest CROO Robotics.
This high-tech contraption could revolutionize Florida’s strawberry industry — and eventually, anywhere else in North America and the world where strawberries are grown and harvested. The sophisticated picking system was truly put to the test this year, with promising results.
“During the Florida strawberry season, we were able to successfully navigate fields autonomously, pick multiple strawberries on a plant, and reliably position the large vehicle over plants with sub-inch accuracy,” says Gary Wishnatzki, president and CEO of Wish Farms in Plant City and a cofounder of Harvest CROO. “There was much learned this season, and we’re excited to take those learnings and apply them next season to what should be a preproduction prototype.”
Despite these exciting automation advances, Wishnatzki says the 2018 berry season was a challenging one for Florida growers.
“Freezes in January set up a bumper crop in February,” he says. “February heat flushed the crop and caused the market to be very unstable.” Although the market recovered in March, it was unfortunately too little, too late for most growers.
When it comes to another berry favorite, blueberries, there was good news and marginally bad news. The good news was an aesthetically-pleasing crop, the bad news was not so much of it.
“Florida blueberries came in with a little lighter crop than forecast,” says Wishnatzki.
This is also backed up by numbers: the Florida Blueberry Growers Association initially predicted 28 million pounds for 2018, but state volume ended up closer to 19 or 20 million pounds for the season.
This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full article.