Strawberries are special. Too soft to be picked by machine, too delicate to be graded on a moving belt, too perishable to go unrefrigerated – even for short periods. Unlike other row crops that are planted, grow to maturity, and are then bulk harvested, strawberries continuously produce new blooms and fruit for as long as the weather cooperates. Today’s varieties are ever-bearing, and you can see blossoms right next to green and mature berries all season long.
Therefore pickers must comb every row for the mature fruit every three days. The plastic clamshells you buy in the grocery store are actually hand packed right in the field – straight off the plant and never touched again. That’s why we count on you to rinse them in cold water before eating to wash off any field dust.
Harvesting is amazing, because pickers first have to discriminate only the proper maturity, and they have to arrange fruit in the container so it looks attractive with the green calyx down and beautiful red fruit showing. They have to make sure fruit is placed correctly to accommodate a full pound in the container without bruising, and that can be difficult when berry size gets large. They have to watch for diseased fruit or insect infestation to eliminate problems before good fruit is affected. Oh yeah, and they have to work rapidly and efficiently – while bending over all day. And they do it quite well!
Florida has about a four month strawberry season, so assuming every plant is picked twice a week, we harvest a total of 6.5 billion plants over the winter. Farms employ about 1.5 workers per acre (2 per acre during the peak month). That’s over 16,000 pickers harvesting over 3,000 acres daily. These folks live and work in the area all four months – or longer if they are involved in pre-season planting and post-season cleanup. They buy their consumables nearby – food, clothing, gasoline (yes, they drive their own cars) – so they are very important to the local economy. Just to destroy some more misconceptions, none can earn less than minimum wage (many earn double that), and their taxes are withheld – just like any other payroll. Plus they get the benefit of working in our normally mild winter weather.
Farms make every effort to harvest in the morning hours when temperatures are cool. Once those delicate berries are picked into the plastic clamshells, trucks rush them from the field to the refrigerated warehouses for rapid forced-air cooling. More about that process in another article, but the fruit we pick in the morning can actually be half way up the East Coast by the next day and on the way to your grocery store. Everyone enjoys locally grown, and Florida is your “local” source all winter. Our fruit can be in a New York, Boston, or Montreal grocery store within three days of harvest, so enjoy the fresh flavor of Florida strawberries all winter long!