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Strawberry glut has some U.S. farmers dumping fruit, others giving it away

March 29, 2010 |  1:51 pm

Strawberries Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.

Strawberry farmers in Florida -- who typically dominate the U.S. production of the sweet red berry from Thanksgiving through Easter -- have been having a tough row to hoe. They started out this year’s season facing unusually cold temperatures, which delayed their harvest. 

That meant that store shelves in California and elsewhere across the country saw prices rise as supplies dwindled: A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service said that consumers were paying $2.85 for a 12-ounce container in January and $2.70 in February, up from $2.61 and $2.45 for the same period in 2009.

But earlier this month, Florida saw its weather warm up -- and that sent its strawberry fields into overdrive.

“When it was cold, cold, cold, the plants went into dormancy,” said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Assn. As the temperatures rose in recent weeks, there were so many strawberry blossoms in the fields, “it looked like snow, like you could ski out there.”

As a result, there’s a glut of berries in the market right now -- a glut that has driven down prices for growers. On Monday, the USDA reported that flats of 8 one-pound containers of medium to large fruit were selling for between $4 to $6, a substantial drop from the nearly $17 to almost $19 that farmers were getting in early February. . . .

That price drop has prompted some Florida farmers to dump their crop or let it rot in the fields.

“It’s something everyone hates. The crime is that the fruit is coming in so beautiful too,” said Campbell. But, he noted, “it’s the economic reality [for some farmers]. It doesn’t make financial sense to keep harvesting a crop they’re going to be losing money on.”

Others, however, opened their fields up to the public to come and get the fruit. And at least one firm --  Wishnatzki Farms in Plant City, Fla. -- let anyone come by this past weekend and pick as much as they could carry, in exchange for a small donation to the Redlands Christian Migrant Assn. (The group offers child care and educational resources for rural low-income families.) Nearly 5,000 people showed up, and the farm raised about $6,500, according to its website.

So what does all this mean to you, the consumer? As California’s strawberry fields hit their seasonal stride, and as Florida’s crop begins to wane in the coming weeks, agriculture groups suggest there could be a window of overlap that may lead to shoppers seeing a flurry of good berry deals at their local markets.

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: A vendor selling strawberries at the Santa Monica farmers market. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times