200 Million Plants, All Planted by Hand!

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To most of the country October means fall leaves, football, and breaking out the sweaters. Here in Florida we’re nearing the end of rainy season, slightly ahead of tourist season, and at the peak of planting season. With the fields prepared in September and the soil thoroughly treated for fungus, weeds, and other pathogens, the strawberry plants are shipped in refrigerated trucks from northern nurseries.

Perforation equipment is used to ensure proper spacing of strawberry plants.

The plastic on the beds is perforated by equipment that ensures proper spacing, and about 19,000 plants are then planted per acre. The semi-dormant plants have bare roots and a few leaves to get them started, but farms must water them heavily until new root growth begins. It’s a critical time, because the transplants are in danger of dehydrating in our 90° fall weather. After about two weeks of careful nurturing, new leaves begin to appear, and the plants are on their way to producing a new winter strawberry crop.

The critical part of this process that few people outside the industry understand is that every single plant must be placed in the ground by hand. A farmer in the Midwest can plant 1000 acres of corn with a handful of employees, however it takes thousands of skilled workers to properly transplant our 200 million strawberry plants in a two to three week planting window. Is there any wonder why our fruit farms are concerned about migrant labor availability?

Field workers planting strawberry plants by hand.

Comprehensive immigration reform has become a political hot potato, and I could write endlessly about the many facets involved. Half of American agricultural value comes from four commodity crops, which are highly mechanized and Federally subsidized – think corn and soybeans.

However specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, nuts, horticultural products) are all heavily dependent on hand labor. Most are too delicate for mechanization, they are generally uninsurable, and NO specialty crops receive subsidies. Seasonal hand labor is critical to plant, pick, pack, and bring your fresh food to market.

Domestic applicants? That sounds good on paper, but in a nearby county with unemployment approaching 20% for the past 3 years, farms cannot recruit more than a handful of domestic workers. Those that do take a job seldom last more than a few days. So if the Federal Government can’t come up with a common sense solution to ensure skilled agricultural workers in our country, consumers will be eating strawberries from Mexico, apples from China, and asparagus from Peru.

I’ll get off the soapbox and close by complimenting our field workers. They have the skill to work rapidly and efficiently, and they contribute to our community during the 5-6 months they live and work here. Many have been harvesting strawberries here in Florida for ten or more years. With labor cost representing about half of the farm gate value of strawberries, this industry could not survive without our seasonal workers. Therefore it is essential for our country to develop a common-sense solution to ensure a viable agricultural workforce – both short and long term.

6 comments
SimplySoBaking
SimplySoBaking

@Orlandofl407 @flstrawberrysue Now that takes some work!!

flstrawberrysue
flstrawberrysue

@Orlandofl407 thanks for sharing the link! We've been busy in the fields, hope you get to enjoy some of our berries this winter!

SMonkeySlippers
SMonkeySlippers

@flstrawberrysue that is crazy. never would have thought!

flstrawberrysue
flstrawberrysue

@SMonkeySlippers it's a lot of work but it pays off in the end! We pick each berry by hand too ensuring only the best get to your table. :D

About Ted

Ted Campbell, Executive Director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association

Ted Campbell, Executive Director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, brings along 40 years of hands-on experience in wholesale distribution and merchandising of fresh vegetables, fruits, and floral products. Produce is his passion and strawberries are his life.