The history and science behind Florida's long-running strawberry industry
Florida has been the winter strawberry capital of the United States for more than 100 years. It all began with entrepreneur and railroad magnate, Henry Plant, who settled Plant City near Tampa and constructed a rail line to link the region to Tampa about 23 miles away so local farmers could develop a market for their winter strawberry crops.
The annual Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City dates back to 1930 and has been running continuously since then except for a break during World War II. This year it runs from March 2-12.
The University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS, has been developing new strawberry varieties for farmers since the late 1940s at its Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma in Hillsborough County. The luscious red berries we find at the store today are quite different then what would have been grown in the early days, and that’s a direct result of decades of careful breeding programs to bring out the best in the fruit.
Strawberry harvest season runs here in Florida from December through April, and these days Florida farmers grow strawberries on about 12,000 acres and generate more than $300 in crops each year.
We learn more about the science behind breeding strawberries, and get some insight into this long-running agriculture industry in the Sunshine State, with Dr. Vance Whitaker. He leads the Strawberry Breeding and Genetics program at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.