Florida Strawberry Picking Challenge

The Strawberry Picking Challenge has grown to become a mid-February tradition in Plant City. The sixth annual gathering, presented by Monte Package Co. and hosted by Wish Farms, raised more than $90,000 to benefit children of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, of which there's an office in Arcadia.

The event featured 20 corporate-sponsored teams competing in an exciting relay-style strawberry-picking race. Local strawberry growers cheered on competitors and coached the corporate teams through the picking challenge. Ultimately, the team backed by the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and coached by Kane Hannaford from G&D Farms was crowned 2019’s Best Harvest Crew and awarded the “Strawberry Joe” trophy.

In addition to the sponsor brackets, local strawberry growers nominated their best harvesters to compete in a professional picking competition. A total of $800 was awarded to these master pickers.

RCMA is a nonprofit that operates child-care centers and charter schools serving Florida’s low-income, rural population, particularly the children of agricultural workers. 

Paul Rusnak is Senior Managing Online Editor of Florida Grower, American Vegetable Grower, American Fruit Grower, and Greenhouse Grower magazines.

Sweet fit for south Florida?

University of Florida scientists reportedly have found another strawberry suited for the state’s already impressive growing portfolio. What’s different about Alpine strawberries? They are a wild bunch that are less commonly cultivated. But despite their unrefined nature, they just might hit a sweet spot for south Florida growers and consumers. According to researchers, while Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are largely unknown to American consumers, the fruit is tasty, aromatic, and ideal for local markets.

UF/IFAS Assistant Professor Alan Chambers led a team of researchers that tested 16 types of Alpine strawberries in south Florida recently to see how well they would grow. Chambers and his team found the Alpine varieties they tested grew well during the winter in the region. After their initial trial in 2018, researchers held a field day and gave seeds to interested growers.

Strawberries are grown in many places in the Sunshine State, but the bulk is produced in central Florida. South Florida strawberry production is limited in part by land prices caused by proximity of farm land to urban areas. But the Alpine strawberries could offer a new variety for farmers and local consumers, Chambers points out in a new research paper published in the journal HortScience. An abridged version of the paper can be found at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs1326.

Paul Rusnak

Foodborne illness outbreaks lessons

The outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7, linked to romaine lettuce from six California counties last fall, was declared over in January by the FDA and the CDC. Sixty-two people in 16 states became ill and 25 were hospitalized. At this writing, the investigation into how and where the contamination occurred continues.

This was the second outbreak last year tied to romaine lettuce from the western U.S. From March to June, 210 people in 36 states became sick. Tragically, five people died. The FDA traced that outbreak to Yuma, AZ., where large cattle-feeding operations are adjacent to fields of leafy greens.

Outbreaks like these affect an entire industry sector—no matter the location. In the most recent outbreak, the FDA issued a consumer advisory warning to not eat any kind of romaine lettuce. They eventually narrowed that broad statement, but not before other lettuce-growing regions, including Florida, were caught in the crosshairs. Florida romaine growers had not started harvesting their crops when the illnesses were reported, so Florida product could not have been to blame. Yet, at the start of the Florida season, the market for romaine shut down. Fortunately, after growers agreed to label their products with harvest location and dates, the FDA permitted producers outside the six California counties to sell their product.

Dr. Trevor Suslow, former director of the University of California-Davis Postharvest Technology Center, and now vice president of Food Safety for the Produce Marketing Association, presented on the topic at FFVA’s annual convention last fall.

It takes planning, coordination, and communication to protect consumers and the agriculture industry from disease outbreaks, he said. Noting the importance of scientific investigation into the root causes of outbreaks, Suslow said, “We need to be sure the new generation of workers understands what happened in the past, so we don’t continue to make the same mistakes.”

Lisa Lochridge is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and president of the Agriculture Institute of Florida.

Clean water, worth the fight

In his first week in office, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled his initial battle plans in the war against red tide and harmful algal blooms. In his “Achieving More Now for Florida’s Environment” executive order, DeSantis called on his troops—the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Department of Health, Visit Florida, and the Department of Economic Opportunity. His objective for Florida: “Rapid improvement for water quality, quantity, and supply.”

Among other things, DeSantis’s Executive Order 19-12 calls for:

$2.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and protection of water resources

Establishing a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to work on reducing the adverse impacts of blue-green algal blooms now and over the next five years

Creating an Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency

Appointing a Chief Science Officer

Expediting key Everglades projects

Working with the South Florida Water Management District to add stormwater treatment to the C-43 Reservoir

Directing the DEP to establish a septic conversion and remediation grant program with a local government match requirement

Instructing all five water management districts to review budgets and prioritize available funding to focus on projects that will help address harmful algal blooms and maximize nutrient reductions

Participating in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force

Continuing DEP’s red tide emergency grant program to support local governments to clean up their beaches and coastal areas to minimize the impacts of red tide to residents and visitors

Not to be overlooked, as battle plans evolve, is the role Florida’s agriculture industries can play in this fight for a healthier environment.

Florida’s ag interests also want clean water. Our strategy to winning this war includes nutrient stewardship plans, implemented with precision yet flexible enough to adapt as conditions warrant. Copies of the plans for this program are available—and feedback/comments are welcomed—by emailing Florida4RCertification@gmail.com with your request.

Mary Hartney is the president/executive director of the Florida Fertilizer & Agrichemical Association.

Wineries and vineyards, thinking road-trip

Certified Florida Farm Wineries and Vineyards grow grapes or other fruit used to make their wine. They also sell wine and offer tours and are registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Here's a taste:


Hutchinson Farm Winery

(407) 814-8330


Old Oaks Vineyard

(850) 547-2254


Rosa Fiorelli Winery Inc.

(941) 322-0976


Sparacia-Witherell Family Winery and Vineyards

(919) 366-2509


Dakotah Winery and Vineyards

(352) 493-9309


Aspirations Winery

(727) 799-9463


Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards



True Blue Winery

(863) 419-4400

DeFuniak Springs

Chatauqua Vineyards

(850) 892-5887


Emerald Coast Wine Cellars

(850) 837-9500

Other Florida wineries and vineyards


Murielle Winery

(727) 561-0336

Fort Myers

Time to Make Wine Inc.

(239) 542-9463

Land O' Lakes

Florida Estates Winery

(813) 996-2113

Live Oak

Mitillini Vineyards

(386) 364-1773

Madeira Beach

The Florida Winery

(727) 362-0008

New Port Richey

Empire Winery and Distillery

(727) 819-2821


Grapes of Kath Vineyards

(863) 382-4706

Tarpon Springs

Tarpon Springs Castle Winery

(727) 943-7029


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