By Madeline Schultz, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
“The Driscoll strawberries from Florida in your grocery stores December thru March all come from my family’s farms,” declared Michelle Williamson. This fact astonished the 50 women from across the country visiting her farm as part of the National Farmers Union and Annie’s Project Women’s Conference in Clearwater, Florida, January 18-21, 2015.
With about 1,200 acres of mixed berry production, near Dover, Florida, her extended family members are the only Florida growers of Driscoll strawberries. At 25,000 to 30,000 pounds harvested per acre, that’s a lot of beautiful and delicious strawberries distributed to appreciative customers across the country and even exported to China.
In fact, Hillsborough County, Florida, where Michelle lives has been called the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World. More than 12,000 acres of strawberries are harvested in the county each year. The county is also home to 92,000 acres of cow/calf beef production. Add in citrus, vegetables and other products, and it’s no surprise Hillsborough County is the third largest agricultural producer in the state.
Involved in agriculture her whole life, Michelle married into her strawberry grower family more than 30 years ago. She is currently the human resources supervisor of G & F Farms and knows the strawberry business inside and out. While raising two daughters and working in the business she also made time for leadership and service with the Florida Strawberry Growers Association and other organizations.
The Driscoll company began 110 years ago by growing patented Sweet Briar strawberries in California’s Pajora Valley. Today, the worldwide company is still investing in patented strawberry genetics. Driscoll cooperates with the Williamson family to conduct research in their fields, testing up to 15,000 unique varieties each year.
Esther Kibbe is in her seventh year as Driscoll’s Eastern Region Plant Breeder. She developed several strawberry varieties specifically for the Florida growing region, right on G & F Farms soil. “Our goal is to put the best quality product in the marketplace. Ease of picking, minimal bruising, disease resistance, appearance, shape, yield, color and size, are all important, but number one is taste,” explained Esther. “Taste is always a priority!” Michelle and Esther invited our group to walk through one section of the field to pick and taste the strawberries. The group agreed that clearly Esther is very good at what she does!
While using genetically modified organism plant breeding techniques would speed up development and lead to greater reductions in fungicide use to control diseases such as botrytis, Driscoll believes GMO varieties would not be customer friendly. “We do all this the old fashioned plant cross breeding way. It takes five to six years to develop a new variety,” clarifies Esther. Improvement in the Florida strawberry varieties has been steady each year and Esther is pleased with the results. “G & F is growing different strawberries for Driscoll in Florida than they grew 10 years ago,” she said.
Esther and Michelle are strong partners in the G & F Farms fields. “My family signs a sales contract with Driscoll,” said Michelle, “There is a lot of extra work to do, but it’s worth it.” Working around Esther’s plant breeding trials and meeting all of the Driscoll production protocols helps the Williamson family be more profitable in the industry.
Esther manages her own small growing and harvesting crew. All of her strawberry production from the field trials is sold into local markets without the Driscoll brand name.
Michelle manages a large G & F Farms harvesting crew. “It takes a dedicated picking crew,” explained Michelle. “The harvesters are our first line of quality control.” There are plenty of harvest risks for Michelle to manage or simply to deal with. There is no strawberry processing available in Florida, so all of the strawberries are produced for the high quality fresh market. Each year, Michelle sends hundreds and hundreds of crates of strawberries to local food banks that didn’t meet the Driscoll quality standards. Rain during the peak harvest season is unwelcome as it causes the strawberries to crack open or become moldy. “We had a three week period of rain last year, where all we could do was strip the plants to allow new berries to grow,” said Michelle.
Many of Michelle’s employees are professional pickers that travel seasonally between the Driscoll fields in California and Florida. Others are migrant workers from Mexico that come on an H2A (temporary) work visa. Pickers earn $10 to $15 per hour depending on individual productivity. In order to assure themselves they will have pickers when needed, G & F Farms provides about 90% of their pickers with temporary housing in the form of mobile homes located on the farm.
Michelle was instrumental in working with Hillsborough County officials and the public to relax ordinances that streamlined the zoning process for temporary housing. This gave growers in the county the opportunity to bypass public hearings that caused problems and stalled construction of quality housing for their migrant workers.
Hillsborough County is known for its sandy soils. “Plasticulture, irrigation and double cropping are common growing practices in the region,” explained Michelle, “strawberries are an annual crop in Florida, due to the very hot summers.” In early fall, growers like the Williamsons use a tractor with a plow and bed press to shape raised rows. Then drip irrigation tape and plastic is applied followed by placing about 25,000 strawberry plants per acre into the prepared soil. By the time the strawberry fields are ready to harvest in late November, growers already have about $15,000 invested in each acre. Vegetables are planted in the fields midway during the strawberry harvest season which ends by early April. The vegetables are harvested April through May. Finally, cover crops are planted during the summer and then the cycle begins again.
The tour day was organized by National Farmers Union and sponsored by Farm Credit and the USDA Risk Management Agency. Also included on the tour was Castillo Farms - strawberry and vegetable growers for the Sweet Life Farms company; and Keel & Curley Winery - blueberry growers, wine and beer makers, and agritourism providers.