Starke strawberry farmers are feeling the heat, and it has nothing to do with the Florida sun.
January’s record-cold temperatures wiped out a majority of the strawberries in Florida. As a result, strawberry prices are up for farmers and patrons alike.
Clayton Norman, son of Norman’s Farm owners Sandra and Buddy Norman, said the farm lost about 80 percent of its strawberry crop as a result of January’s cold snaps.
In a week his family’s farm picks about 75 to 100 flats, an amount it would usually pick in about a day, according to Norman. Each flat is about 12 pints of strawberries.
Norman’s provides strawberries to locals and even some grocery stores, such as Ward’s and Fresh Market.
Norman said his family usually imports strawberries from Plant City this time of year.
However, Plant City also lost strawberries in the recent cold weather. As a result, the price of strawberries has gone up.
Despite the need, Norman said the farm cannot afford to purchase as many flats as it would if the market wasn’t heated.
This time of year, Plant City flats would cost about $16 if so much of the crop wasn’t lost to the cold weather, according to Tommy King, owner of King’s Kountry Produce in Starke.
King also imports from Plant City on a regular basis. King said his distributor charges him $25 for a flat at the moment.
Norman’s distributor currently charges him about $20 for a flat, which he said is too expensive.
Presently Norman’s Farm is selling its strawberries for $3 a pint and $14 for half of a flat.
Despite her family losing about 80 percent of its strawberry crop, Sandra Norman said she and her husband can’t charge more for the strawberries they’re selling to make up for the loss.
With the cold weather, low strawberry output, and regular prices, Norman isn’t sure of the exact revenue loss.
This season has been unusual for King, too, but not in the same way.
King said he isn’t buying as many strawberries from Plant City as he normally would this month. However, unlike Norman’s, it’s because his strawberries survived the cold.
“I’m not having to buy as many because I’ve been picking my own,” he said.
“It costs [farmers] in energy and money to pay for the frost,” said Jim DeValerio, Bradford County agricultural agent for University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Before blooming into the voluptuous, mature morsels of oozing sweetness, strawberries are delicate, minuscule flower buds.
When these “pretty little buds” come into contact with freezing temperatures like North-Central Florida has been experiencing this January, they die, said Sandra Norman.
King uses ground covers to keep the plants about 3 to 5 degrees warmer than outside temperatures. It costs about $300 to $500 every time he has the covers laid out. He’s used the cover about five times thus far this January.
The Normans use an irrigation system to protect their crops, which costs about $100 a night, Clayton Norman said.
Sandra Norman said they leave the sprinklers running at about 33 degrees so a thin layer of protective ice could form around the strawberry berries and flower buds, insulating them.
Despite their efforts, Clayton Norman said they lost all of their flower buds.
The problem with irrigating is that the longer the berry is coated in ice, the more likely the water will damage the integrity of the fruit, DeValerio said.
Local farmers usually purchase from Plant City so they can provide for all of their customers. Even in normal Florida weather, they do not have the capacity to provide enough strawberries to their entire local clientele.
King, for this week, said he doesn’t plan on ordering any from Plant City because he happens to have enough, which is unusual. He attributed this unusual surplus to the ground covers he used to protect his strawberry plants in the cold weather.
Despite how expensive ground covers are, King said he prefers them to irrigating.
Even with the ground covers, King said it’s unusual that his crops have survived the cold.
“That’s unheard of for us,” he said. “The good lord saved these berries for us.”