With workers busy harvestingstrawberries on a crisp winter morning, all looked normal in fields around Plant City, Fla. But a worrisome question hung over the scene: Will there be enough laborers for harvest come spring, when competition from other crops like blueberries tends to entice workers away?

“That’s the big unknown,” says Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wish Farms, a grower/shipper based at Plant City.

“Early indications are that labor is tighter than normal for this time of year. Harvest labor would normally be more abundant. Logic tells me that with the stricter immigration laws passed in Georgia and Alabama, people would be flocking to Florida.

“But I’ve had people tell me that a lot of the laborers are just afraid and have left here to go back to Mexico, or maybe out west. The only thing that makes sense, since they’re not here, is that they went back to Mexico. From talking to people in other states, it seems to be a nationwide situation.”

Strawberry growers would begin to most seriously feel the effects of a labor shortage in March. That gives them time to develop plans to deal with the problem if it arises.

“We’re thinking about making provisions with neighbors who already have a guest worker program. Maybe we could share them, or maybe we could bring in H-2A guest workers earlier. We’d like to start an H-2A program ourselves, but I’m not sure we have enough time to set up one that would help us this season,” Wishnatzki says.

“We’re going to come up with an alternative to get labor in here. We’re trying to make provisions to find some crews. We may go ahead and try to work on an H-2A program, and that takes housing. We’re looking at permitting a labor camp that could house 500 people on our property for next year.”

Meanwhile, a labor shortage in the strawberry fields this year could disrupt both plans and marketing.

“There might be strawberry fields that have to get dropped earlier this year just because there isn’t enough labor to harvest them,” he says.

Mild weather early in the season encouraged growers in the area, but freezes can develop quickly and turn the strawberry world topsy-turvy.

“There have been years it stayed mild until Christmas and then we had a devastating freeze. If the crop runs late this year, I don’t believe we will get it all picked,” Wishnatzki says.

“Florida blueberries have come on strong as a crop and have become a major factor in April. So have grape tomatoes. It takes a lot of people to harvest those crops, and it siphons off a lot of our strawberry help.”

Though some area growers bumped acreageof strawberries a bit, for a 5 percent to 10 percent increase this season, Wish Farms went the opposite direction.

“We actually backed off acreage at our company-owned farm because of the fear of this labor situation,” he says. “For that reason, we leased some ground, but chose not to develop a field for strawberries. In other words, we are paying for a lease on property we aren’t using.”

The company’s packing and shipping division increased acreage about 50 percent by adding three new growers this season. Wish Farms markets strawberries for about a dozen growers now, plus about 100 blueberry growers.

The concerns about labor come just when things look good for strawberry growers.

“The good news is that we’re way ahead of the previous year’s production,” Wishnatzki says. “After the first full week of December, we’d harvested 10 times the production compared to this time last year

“We’re growing more early varieties than in the past, particularly the Radiance variety, which is looking good.  So, there are positive things going on. Right now it’s just the labor situation that has a lot of people concerned.”

About 10,000 acres of strawberries are grown in the Plant City area, making it the nation’s second largest production area behind California. Wishnatzki figures it is 14 percent the size of California’s production.

“For winter strawberry production, we are the leader,” he says.

Mexican imports erode the business somewhat, Wishnatzki says.

“Whatever price we are, they are always cheaper, usually by $5 to $6 a crate. That excludes some buyers. This may sound kind of funny, but the lucky straw we’ve drawn is that strawberries are a more perishable crop than most.

“The road systems in Mexico are bad. When they’re hauling product a lot of miles on bad roads, that’s a risk. Here in Florida, we have quality and freshness. That’s our advantage, and it helps us overcome a lot of our competitors.”

That factor doesn’t figure intomarketing frozen product, however.

“We’re also competing with imports on frozen strawberries,” Wishnatzki says. “We packed 10 million pounds of those last year. These imports are coming from Mexico, Poland and China.

“What aggravates me is that, since they’re frozen, there aren’t any country of origin labeling laws that apply to them, unlike with fresh strawberries. You can buy yogurt with processed strawberries that could be from China, Poland, Mexico or wherever, and it doesn’t have to be disclosed.

“With frozen strawberries, we have to be strictly competitive on price. On frozen strawberries, it’s tough. Our only advantage is an East Coast freight advantage. In the other countries, their labor cost is so much less that it’s difficult to compete with frozen strawberries.

“A few companies that buy from us have demanded that their frozen strawberries be domestically grown, but the vast majority are strictly price buyers. So remember that when you buy a cup of yogurt — those strawberries could be from anywhere,” he says.

Wishnatzki would have no problem with trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, if all the players abided by the rules.

“I’m a believer in free trade and also in fair trade,” he says. “What we’re dealing with is not an even playing field. They’re paying wages that would be illegal in this country. And there should be duties in place. If they want to come in here duty-free, they should play by our rules. Don’t put American companies and farmers at a disadvantage.”

Through his Wish Farms marketing arm, Wishnatzki tries to build consumer awareness of strawberries and where they grow on social media.

“Consumers only know what they seein the store — and a lot of times that’s only Mexican strawberries. They might think that’s all that’s available. So, on Facebook we make announcements about what’s being picked on our farm. There are thousands of people on our Facebook page. It might help turn the tide in a small way now, but in the future I think it will do it in a bigger way.”

Wish Farms works to provide extra value to corporate buyers, as well.

“One thing that differentiates our company in the strawberry industry is our forecasting ability. We put a lot of resources into forecasting what the crop will do. We have three people who do nothing but count blooms. They’re able to get a good handle on what production will be in the future. It helps chain stores set up promotions by providing a good baseline of what to expect in coming weeks.

“Our system is based on a model developed by the University of Florida. We’ve used it four years and have refined it as we’ve gone along and made it better. It helps a lot with our marketing efforts.”

The company is in the process of hiring a market analyst to run that department and develop new forecasting tools.

“We want to be able to do this for all the crops we deal with, and feed our sales department information so we have a better edge in setting up promotions with retail stores,” Wishnatzki says.

“We’re the only one in the industryputting these kinds of resources into forecasting. Customers appreciate that, though. It’s valuable to us and keeps us out of trouble, because we don’t promise something we’re not going to have.

“We can promote at the right time and allocate fruit fairly among our different customers. Our customers know when we give them an offering, we deliver it, outside of anything really unusual happening, because we have pretty accurate forecasting.”

Last year, Wish Farms grew strawberries in California for the first time in a decade.

“We have 150 acres of strawberries at Salinas and Santa Maria this year. It’s a way of diversifying a little bit. We also market blueberries for that reason, but we don’t grow them. We grow strawberries ... and we know strawberries. We’ve been Florida’s largest strawberry shipper for 50 years or more.”

To ship strawberries, you have to first pick them, of course, and right now that’s the thing worrying Wishnatzki.

“Strawberries have to be picked every three or four days — they don’t wait for anything. At the moment, things around here are in pretty good shape. It’s still early, though, and labor is the big unknown this year.”