In an interview today with Digital Journal, Ted Campbell, Executive Director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association spoke of the need for unbiased and ethical reporting, citing the recent national news report on Florida strawberry growers.
Referring to the spotlight ABC News’ cast on Florida strawberry farmers near Plant City this past weekend, Campbell said the coverage was “out of proportion” and there was no mention of “harvesting costs” farmers must endure at the end of a harsh growing season. He suggested ABC News had every opportunity to present the entire story and with a bit of investigative reporting could have presented both sides accurately.
An unusually extreme winter in the state wreaked havoc on farmers as they first tried to save plants from a hard freeze in January and were then forced to watch much of the berry crop mature at the same time, saturating the market and causing market prices to plummet.
Referencing a press release the FSGA issued before ABC’s story, Campbell noted many farmers have a U-Pick program where they open their fields to the public, providing an opportunity for picking strawberries at a reduced rate and sometimes for free.
Many charitable organizations benefit from these efforts, including church groups and school tours who can then use the fresh fruit as a part of their fundraiser programs.
The press release states Florida’s strawberry season is winding down and farmers have begun preparing fields for “spring vegetable crops.”
In a rebuttal letter being sent to ABC News, Campbell said the story was “an insult to all people in America who provide food to our population. Our farmers were portrayed as greedy and insensitive to people in need at a time when they themselves are enduring record losses.” He labeled ABC’s efforts as “a collapse of journalistic standards.”
Campbell noted the “tough life, and hard choices” all farmers must endure in order to compete with mother nature. As seasons change, farmers must prepare fields for the next round of crops, trying to salvage any losses in hopes of better luck during the next cycle.
The Florida strawberry season begins in November; plants have been continuously producing fruit since then. For farmers, that means hand-picking crops, at least twice a week, for the last four months.
Campbell noted farmers are not in the business to waste crops. Unlike many farmers across the nation, strawberry farmers receive no subsidy checks nor do they enjoy the benefits of a crop insurance program. There are no bailouts and no disaster recovery programs available to them.
One of the most legitimate concerns in the rebuttal, of many presented, was Campbell’s reference to a video ABC News attached to its news story. “You show homeless people with valid needs who are appalled by apparent waste, however there is no suggestion as to how this food could magically fly hundreds of miles from the field to the needy without significant cost to someone. If there were a way to accomplish such a feat, I guarantee our farmers would be doing so.”
During the interview with this reporter, Campbell brought up harvesting costs, a fact of life for farmers. “The issue is what is the cost to bring that fruit from the field? The cost of hand labor, a box to put the crop in, and shipping is prohibitive.”
Farmers must prepare for the next growing season as they go through normal end-of season routines, whatever the crop might be. Regarding Florida strawberry farmers, he said the seasons are changing and “60 percent are in normal harvest protocol” as they begin preparing for the next crop of new fruits and vegetables.
While farms around Plant City average less than 30 acres in size, their economic contribution to the community is substantial, somewhere to the tune of $1 billion, weather permitting.
Hillsborough County, FL is the fifth largest agricultural county in the nation, despite being home to Tampa, one of the largest urban areas along Florida’s west coast. Strawberries represent 40 percent of the county’s agricultural value, grown on about five percent of available farm land.
Plant City is known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World” and holds the annual Florida Strawberry Festival each spring.