El Niño weather pattern presents challenge for Tampa Bay strawberry growers

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — In recent weeks, Dustin Grooms has become a man who incessantly checks the weather forecast.

“This time of year with this season, it’s been a cat and mouse game. I mean you’re looking at the weather every hour,” he said.

He is farm manager at Fancy Farms on the Polk County/Hillsborough County line. His farm’s main crop is strawberries and this year has proven to be a challenge growing them.

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“The weather’s kind of been stalling a lot of the bloom cycle this season out because we’re in that weather pattern of cold weather, rainy weather, not a lot of sunshine,” said Grooms.

He said rain and lack of sunshine causes the berry’s ripening cycle to slow, which impedes harvest. Certain varieties of strawberries cannot handle a lot of rain.

On Wednesday, workers were expected to pick 12,000 pounds of strawberries, which Grooms considers a light day due to the weather.

Like other growers, he will be closely monitoring the weather on Saturday when it is expected to dip to near-freezing temperatures.

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“We’re out there feeling leaves to see if there’s ice that’s on them. Once we decide there’s enough ice, we’re gonna fire up the pumps,” said Grooms.

Growers spray water on their strawberries when temperatures go below freezing.

“It will make a protective cover over the leaves, over the blooms, over the strawberries. It’s like an igloo effect and it’ll keep it right there at that freezing temperature,” Grooms explained.

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