Manatee's Wish Farms bucks trend, grows organic strawberries

Wish Farms takes risk on organic berries

srocco@bradenton.comFebruary 17, 2014 

DUETTE -- An older couple turned up at Wish Farms' strawberry fields in a strawberry red Ford SUV. Johnny and Linda Carson, bean and corn farmers from Missouri, were curious about Wish, which has the largest organic strawberry operation in Florida.

Gary Wishnatzki, Wish Farms CEO, extended a hand. "I'm Gary," he said.

"We didn't get any crops this year because of flooding," Johnny told him.

"Sorry to hear that."

Wishnatzki walked over to a flatbed truck and picked up a few containers of fresh-picked berries for his guests. Johnny gave him a bottle of his own organic honey in return.

After several thank yous, the Carsons drove away and Wishnatzki, a third-generation grower, was back watching 75 workers pick strawberries on part of his 1,500-acre farm off of State Road 62.

This season, Wishnatzki planted 470 acres of conventional strawberries and 180 acres of organic strawberries, which represent about 75 percent of Florida's organic strawberry production.

Wishnatzki started growing organic berries in the early 2000s in a greenhouse environment but lost money rapidly. He began to turn a profit only in the last few years.

"It's still a challenge. It's difficult. The climate here isn't conducive to growing organically," Wishnatzki said.

The Florida climate is a breeding ground for pests, insects and funguses that attack the plant and ruin the fruit, ultimately affecting the yield. Organic farmers can't use fertilizers and pesticides, forcing them to use natural fertilizers and pests such as mites to defend the berries.

"If you were in a drier climate, you wouldn't have some of these challenges," said Wishnatzki, who also owns a Wish Farm in Plant City. "That's why in northern California, there's more organic acres planted because it's easier to grow out there."

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said growing organic is costly, and the average farmer can't afford the trial and error, so they give up on growing organic strawberries.

"Growers don't like using money, and they know they can't make it work," he said. "But it's definitely a worthy cause."Most organic strawberry growers are in California, New York and the New England states in drier, cooler climates.

So why does Wishnatzki bother?

"Organic prices are higher, so there's an offset, and customers are willing to pay," he said, adding consumers can expect to pay upward of $3 more per pound for organic berries.

Latin music streamed from truck radios and Pandora stations as 700 workers -- migrant and local -- picked berries Friday morning. In the last few years, Wish Farms created How's My Picking?, a patented process that ensures quality control.

A picker, wearing a card with a 16-digit barcode, brings his haul to the checker, who will scan the card and a sticker that will go on the package. This allows the package to be traced back to the grower, the variety, field location and time of picking.

The strawberries picked Friday will go to grocery stores like Publix, Costco and Aldi. Wish Farms sends strawberries as far north as Maine and Wisconsin to the west.

"The vast majority of feedback has been positive. We do try to share that with employees," Wishnatzki said.

Customers can comment about Wish strawberries at HowsMyPicking.com.

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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