Squeezing the juice out of extra berries

Gary Wishnatzki

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: If you've been paying attention in the produce aisle of late, you might have been able to snag a great deal on strawberries. They're selling for less than a dollar a box here in Los Angeles. Cold weather has pushed Florida's strawberry harvest back into California's growing season, which means a flood of extra berries on the market. And a huge headache for farmers down in Florida.

Gary Wishnatzki is a strawberry grower in Plant City, Fla. Mr. Wishnatzki, welcome to the program.

Gary Wishnatzki: Yes, thank you.

Ryssdal: How's the strawberry season treating you so far?

Wishnatzki: It hasn't been one of our better seasons in a situation where most growers are probably going to lose money this year.

Ryssdal: So now what do you do when you have all these extra strawberries out there?

Wishnatzki: We have a process line so we fortunately are able to utilize our surplus by putting it into frozen product. Many of our other growers didn't have that same opportunity unfortunately. Typically in mid-February growers will plant in the same bed spring crop like melons, eggplant, tomatoes or cucumbers, but by late March the two crops begin to compete for room and at that point the grower will just come in and twist off the strawberry plants to give the spring crop room to grow. This year the extended cold slowed the strawberry harvest down.

Ryssdal: In other words, you guys are sliding because of the weather and California is coming in a bit earlier, right?

Wishnatzki: Yes, correct, and we kind of just created the perfect storm here.

Ryssdal: That brings up another point of getting these plants to market, and these berries to market. It can't be worth your while when your price that you're getting is so far down.

Wishnatzki: Yes, actually prices have not been that much lower if at all this year. The difference is that the crop has just come in much later. So the volume is coming in on a lower, late market. But the cost to harvest and pack a flat of strawberries is about $5, so if you're getting less than $5 you're losing money on each flat that you pick.

Ryssdal: I understand you have another way to get your berries off the plants there. You sort of opened up the field for a pick-your-own.

Wishnatzki: Yeah, we did that. We were just sitting around lunch, and we were talking about the surplus of berries. We said why don't we just open our field one day and let the food banks come in and clean the field. And the response that we got was phenomenal. We estimated that over 5,000 people showed up that day.

Ryssdal: How many berries you figure 5,000 nonprofessional pickers can pick?

Wishnatzki: Yeah, 5,000 nonprofessionals, they must have picked about 8,000 flats we assume. We couldn't even pick it on our normal three-day cycle. After that they had picked everything down to almost green berries, so we had to give them an extra day before we went back in that field.

Ryssdal: Gary Wishnatzki. He owns Wish Farms in Plant City, Fla. They've been growing strawberries down there since 1922. Mr. Wishnatzki, thanks so much for your time.

Wishnatzki: Thank you very much, Kai. I appreciate it.

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