The Florida strawberry season is literally heating up as crops come into the peak of the season just a bit earlier than usual.
Florida is the second-largest strawberry-producing state in the nation, with approximately 10,000 acres planted and 180 million strawberries picked by hand each year. This is according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). California ranks No. 1, owning 91% of production, but Florida produces the majority of the domestic winter strawberry crop, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
Even though it's been hotter than normal for the past five weeks in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, growers in Plant City, Florida, celebrated their winter crop while hosting the annual Florida Strawberry Festival this week. Growers said they expect to produce around 40 million "flats" or cases of strawberries, which translates to around 70 truckloads per day over the 16-week season. Plant City is about 11 miles west of Lakeland, Florida.
High temperatures in Plant City normally range from 73 degrees in early February to 77 degrees in early March, with lows of 50 to 54 degrees. But highs reached the 80s on 18 days in February, including a record 88 degrees on Feb. 12 and 13. There were some cooler-than-normal days in the mix, but the average temperature throughout the month was nearly 5 degrees above normal, and highs have hit the lower 90s twice this month.
Impact On Freight
The Florida Strawberry Festival typically marks the start of the state's spring produce season and a tightening of capacity in the refrigerated market. But excess capacity is still evident in Florida, meaning growers shouldn't have any trouble finding trucks for most weekend produce markets.
Looking at the latest SONAR data from FreightWaves, reefer outbound tender rejections in the Lakeland market (ROTRI.LAL) are at 2.18% Friday, which is 313 basis points lower than this time last year, adding to the downward pressure on spot rates. Tender rejections tell us what percentage of loads offered by shippers are being turned down by carriers, specifically for reefer (temperatures-controlled trailer) freight in this case. Carriers often reject loads initially in high-volume areas because they have many options and can charge a higher rate on the spot market. With the Florida strawberry season just beginning, volumes are still low, as are rejections because carriers have to accept as many loads as possible right now.
As of Friday morning, dedicated contract reefer capacity rates have been flat in the past week with the exception of produce loads to New York City (AGRATE.LALJFK), which dropped 2% in the past week to $3,000 a load or $2.60 per mile to Hunts Point in the Bronx. Reefer capacity for loads to Atlanta is still tight as outbound tender rejections (ROTRI.LALATL) are high, sitting just below 18% this week. With the exception of Atlanta, growers (shippers) should be seeing plenty of available reefer capacity in the spot market.
Good Berry Quality
"Strawberries are a crop that doesn't like heat," Jim Grabowski of Well Pict based in Watsonville, California, told FreshPlaza last week. "We like cooler nights and warm days rather than hot days."
When the forecast calls for abnormal warmth, picking is done as early in the day as possible, generally wrapping up by midday.
"It doesn't take much to put a bruise on a berry, especially if it's warm," Grabowski added. "So we'd rather pick them while it's still cooler early in the morning."
Despite the recent heat, Florida strawberry fields are doing well.
"The berries out of Florida have been really good this season. They're nicely sized, have good color and flavor, and we're really pleased with the crop," Grabowski said.
He noted that while the Florida berry season started on time around mid-December, when it wraps up depends somewhat on the weather.
"When it starts getting too warm, for Florida, we look to push berries out at least through the middle or maybe until the end of March," Grabowski said. "By that time California is running pretty heavy so we switch over. If it stays warm … it'll probably make for a sooner end to the Florida deal."
Fortunately, temperatures in Plant City and the rest of the Lakeland freight market returned to normal Friday and will remain at or below normal for the next several days.
Solid Berry Demand
Meanwhile, demand for the fruit has been good.
"It was off to an average start because there was an overlap between California and Florida," Grabowski said. "Sometimes California has a flush early season, which this year we're not having, so that's keeping the demand for the Florida berries strong."
This puts pricing at good numbers.
"It's enough for the grower who is going to make some money on it as well as offer decent pricing at the consumer level," Grabowski said. "It's not so high that people are going to pass on pricing at the store level. For this time of year, it's good and it looks similar to last year at this time."
Looking ahead, as Florida moves through peak and is even starting to come down a little bit, California will begin to pick up production. Grabowki's final thought: "I think it's going to be a smooth transition between the two areas. As the Florida crops slow down, we'll go through into the beginning of March, and then sometime between the middle and end of March we'll make a complete transition."
FreightWaves Market Expert Dean Croke contributed to this article.