Berries abound in Florida

Florida is the second largest producer of U.S. strawberries, behind California, and is responsible for the lion’s share of berries grown domestically during the winter.

Much has changed over the past few years, with rising acreage to meet demand and high-tech machinery lending a robotic hand to harvests.

Wish Farms, BB #:111764 a year-round supplier of conventional and organic varieties of Florida-grown blueberries and strawberries, is excited to bring some new strawberry varieties to the market.

Amber Maloney, director of marketing for Wish Farms in Plant City, says taste is key: “If consumers have a positive eating experience, they’ll buy again.”

With the help of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Strawberry Lab, growers “are introducing new varieties ideal for our Florida climate about every four years,” says Maloney.

Florida Brilliance, the newest variety, “will be planted heavily for the 2019-20 Florida strawberry season for its early market window, shipability, size, color, and most importantly, flavor,” she said.

Another variety from the lab, Sweet Sensation, has turned out to be winner with retailers and consumers. Maloney says Sweet Sensation truly lives up to its name in brix or sugar levels and popularity. In response, Wish Farms will be increasing acreage for the berry next season.

Tackling Labor
One of the biggest challenges of the berry business is labor, a consistent thorn in the side of many producers. Harvesting for this particular berry runs every three days from November through April. “Everything is done by hand,” explains Maloney. “Strawberry plants are hand planted, picked, and packed in the field.”

Growers have struggled to find local workers to do this backbreaking work to keep up with skyrocketing demand. “Most growers have transitioned to H-2A labor to provide a reliable workforce,” notes Maloney, referring to the federal program she calls both “a necessary evil” and “very expensive and cumbersome.”

She is not alone in this assessment, as many growers, not just in Florida but throughout the nation, have been vocal about the federal program and its pitfalls. Unfortunately, most producers have few alternatives. The good news—at least in the Sunshine State—is Wish Farms’ own solution for the dearth of skilled labor. Cue the widely publicized and praised Harvest CROO Robotics team.

Send in the robots
Gary Wishnatzki, Wish Farms’ third-generation owner, cofounded Harvest CROO Robotics to develop machinery to pick ripe strawberries without damaging the fruit or rest of the plant. Since 2013, the company has been perfecting its robotic harvester with one overarching goal: “to revolutionize the agriculture industry with automation.”

So far, trials have been promising and the response from berry growers enthusiastic. According to Maloney, over two-thirds of the U.S. strawberry industry has already invested, clearly acknowledging the dire need for such a solution.

The latest iteration, called the Berry 5, will be the joint venture’s first revenue-producing harvester, which Wish Farms plans to utilize in the state’s next picking season. Initially, a few workers will be needed for packing, but a future version will (hopefully) boast this capacity as well.

This is a multi-part spotlight feature on Florida produce adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.