GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When you think of February, you might dream of a Happy Valentine’s Day, roses and romance. If you live in central and South Florida, you might also want to buy the very best strawberries. Many local fields are rife with the red fruit. Wael Elwakil, a relatively new fruit and vegetable production agent with UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County, tells us why strawberries are so critical to west-central Florida from November to March:
Q: What is your background?
A: I came to UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County in May 2021 after two years at UF/IFAS Extension Manatee County. I went to Manatee County after earning my doctor of plant medicine degree and doing post-doctoral research at UF. As a fruit and vegetable production agent, my work takes me to many strawberry farms in Hillsborough County because the fruit is grown on nearly half the farm acreage in the county.
Q: What makes west-central Florida the Winter Strawberry Capital of the United States?
A: Strawberry weather requirements are a little tricky. We try to plant before other states. That way, our growers gain an advantage in the strawberry market. In Florida, the Tampa Bay area is the belt (line) where you can grow strawberries because of its climate and daylength. If you go further north, it’s too cold, and further south, it’s too warm.
Q: Why are strawberries such an important crop, to Florida, the United States, to consumers and to farmers?
A: First of all, it’s a matter of volume. The latest projections for this year show 11,000 acres of strawberries for Hillsborough County. Hillsborough leads the state in strawberry production. Then, there’s the flavor. It’s kind of an exhilarating fruit. Kids love it. It looks nice. It’s considered a romantic fruit and featured on Valentine’s Day because it’s a pretty, red color and heart shape. It’s an awesome, nice treat. It’s very flavorful. The flavor is not too strong. Now, Florida strawberries are better than ever because our breeding program is geared to developing even more taste.
Q: What UF/IFAS varieties are popular with growers?
A: ‘Florida Brilliance’ and Sweet Sensation®, although farmers are now growing more Sensation strawberries. With Sensation, the flavor is really good.
Q: What is your role with strawberry growers in the area?
A: I educate growers on the specifics of our strawberry varieties among many other related crop production topics. I have a very good relationship with the breeders and other scientists at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. We work together to support and improve the strawberry industry.
Q: What are some the pluses and minuses for strawberry growers? In other words, how difficult are strawberries to produce and harvest and what’s the payoff for the growers?
A: Strawberries are a very complex crop to manage. You have to create them from tissue culture. Then you harvest and ship them, hopefully cold. You don’t want them to be shipped frozen. It’s difficult to manage pests and diseases. It’s a very tedious, sensitive process. Someone has to be out there all the time, keeping an eye on the crop. On the plus side, it’s a short season (November to March). It can pay back. This year has been lucky. You haven’t seen much disease. Pests have been minimal. For some farmers, this means they won’t have to grow a second crop. And in the end, that’s critical to a crop that has an estimated $300 million-a-year impact on Florida’s economy.
–Brad Buck, UF/IFAS