For three generations, the Wishnatzki family of Wish Farms has been growing strawberries in Plant City, the strawberry capital of the world. Current owner Gary Wishnatzki began working in 1974 and has helped turn the business into a nationally recognized brand in grocery stores around the country. Their farm in Duette in Manatee County has more than 600 acres of strawberry plants, one of the largest contiguous strawberry farms in the country. Wishnatzki gave us a strawberry tutorial.
Plant City Pride
Plant City in northeastern Hillsborough County began commercially growing strawberries in the 1880s, when Henry B. Plant brought his railroad through the small town, making the produce accessible to neighboring cities. Thousands of small growers have built Plant City into the strawberry capital it is today.
In the Field
Gary Wishnatzki’s grandfather left Manhattan for Florida in the 1930s to start Wish Farms. The business now owns about 1,600 acres of strawberry crops in Florida and sells 5 million flats, each containing eight clamshell plastic containers, per season. Wish Farms grows on about 1,000 acres in California, too.
Florida strawberry season begins at the end of November and runs until April 1. December and January are peak months, when weather is optimal for growing the fruit. “The majority of plants are planted in October, and the farm begins harvesting by Thanksgiving,” says Wishnatzki. “By Valentine’s Day we’ve hit a stride.”
Strawberries are the only fruit with seeds on the outside, which technically means they are not berries. Botanists put them in a category called pseudocarp or “false fruit.” The 200 brownish-whitish specks on each strawberry are the true fruits, and each one of those specks surrounds a teeny-tiny seed.
There are hundreds of strawberry varieties, with new breeds developed using natural hybridization in agricultural labs. One of the top breeders in Florida is the University of Florida, which tests more than 70,000 crossbreeds per year.
Growing, Growing, Gone
It takes three to four weeks for a strawberry to grow from flower to fruit. The fruit is one of the few that doesn’t ripen after picked, so it must be harvested at the right time. “Strawberry plants are perennials, but we treat them like annuals in Florida,” says Wishnatzki. “We mow over the plants in May and replant new fields every year.”
“Strawberries must be cooled as soon as they are picked,” says Wishnatzki. “Every hour that a strawberry doesn’t make it to the cooler, it loses a day of shelf life.” Wish’s Manatee County farm has a cooler on property, bringing berries down to optimal temperature before they are packed and shipped.
The annual Plant City Strawberry Festival runs March 4-14, 2021. Enjoy big-name country music acts, carnival rides and delicious strawberry treats. Or, pick strawberries at Wish’s Manatee farm, where proceeds go to local charities. For U-Pick dates and strawberry recipes and tips, visit wishfarms.com.