Strawberry Grower Elevates Crop with Greenhouse Effect
TAMPA, Fla. Truth be told, semiretirement in his late 40s was getting boring for Allen J. Williford. He and his wife lived on their 56-foot boat Blonde Moment in the Florida Keys. He played games on a laptop computer. He fished and swam.
Then in the summer of 2002, the former Hillsborough strawberry farmer got a call from Plant City's Gary Wishnatzki, whose company grows and markets strawberries and other produce.
Wishnatzki wanted some help growing strawberries -- just not in the ground.
Two years later, Williford is selling the yacht as the partnership he and Wishnatzki formed enters its second year of production in what is thought to be the only greenhouse strawberry operation in the Tampa Bay area, and one of just a few in Florida.
In a Thonotosassa orange grove, the pair built a $250,000 greenhouse that stands on just less than an acre. Inside, 60,000 plants rooted in a material made from volcanic rock hang 5 feet off a floor covered in white plastic. The look is decidedly space age.
That's enough plants to fill 3 1/2 acres on a traditional strawberry field, but these plants never touch Mother Earth.
"I don't know, I guess I just wasn't ready to give up farming," said Williford, now 51, who lives in Seffner. "Can I just sit idle and not do anything? I needed a challenge. I found out I wasn't ready for retirement."
The pair's company, Clear Choice Greenhouses, bills itself as an environmentally friendly, state-of-the-art, sustainable farming operation that is virtually pesticide free. It doesn't qualify as organic, since Williford acknowledges using a small amount of a fungicide in the summer.
Williford uses no insecticides or herbicides.
He acknowledged they can't be sure consumers will embrace the relatively high price of the difficult-to-produce strawberries.
"It's a hell of a risk," he said. "I'll tell you what, this is not easy to do."
He said the company is hoping health-conscious Americans are willing to pay more for the berries grown in a virtually pesticide-free environment. He estimates the strawberries are twice as expensive to produce as those from the field.
One of a strawberry grower's most-used pesticides, methyl bromide, is being phased out because it depletes the ozone, so Williford said farmers will increasingly look for alternative ways of producing berries.
"There's a market for the product," Williford said. "If the attitude of consumers and the public worldwide is that they want us to use less of these harmful pesticides . . . they need to be willing to pay more for the product we grow without them."
Aside from protecting the strawberry plants from cold, Williford said the greenhouse operation offers other advantages.
It could produce a slightly longer growing season. The strawberries are better protected from disease than plants in an open environment and the operation produces a more consistent product, he said.
And it's a more efficient use of the land.
"I believe this could be the future," Wishnatzki said. "You look at the rising cost of land. It's already an issue in southern California. A lot of prime strawberry land is being taken up by development. The day will come here as well."
The greenhouse is a first step. Williford said he and Wishnatzki want to see how the strawberries sell. If successful, the pair plan to expand.
The company is selling its product to two outlets this season, including the Fresh Market on Dale Mabry in Tampa, where they sold for $6.99 a pound Thursday.
At a nearby Publix, field strawberries were selling for $4.99 a pound, though it is early in the season and the price is expected to drop in the weeks ahead.
Fresh Market refused to comment. But Wishnatzki said the strawberries are selling well.
"I think over time that we'll get better at it," he said. "We can get the production numbers up and could get the costs down. Right now, the costs are high because we're growing on such a small scale."
Last year, Publix Super Markets tested selling the strawberries in five stores, he said. But growing difficulties in the first year of operation led to an inconsistent supply, Wishnatzki said, and Publix didn't reorder.
"We went through a lot of trial and error last year," he said. "The market chains need a consistent supply."
Williford said he doesn't see himself as competing against local strawberry farmers, especially given the initial expense of his product.
Hillsborough strawberry farmer Steve Lindsey said he isn't worried and said he sees the benefit of greenhouses.
"If this land starts getting chewed up by houses, then you have to find a 2-acre block and do what they've done if you want to keep farming," he said.
Craig Chandler, a scientist at a University of Florida agricultural research station in Dover, calls the operation "impressive."
"The biggest negative to this is the cost of production," Chandler said. "But Allen's a very good grower, and if anyone can make it work, he can."
Williford is the son of tomato farmers. He grew up in Ruskin and entered the strawberry business with his brothers in 1978.
He moved to North Carolina in 1994, growing strawberries in a greenhouse before selling his operation and semiretiring in 2000. That operation used pesticides and a different growing system. The new greenhouse is about 4 miles away from the closest strawberry field.
All visitors pass through a pressurized entryway. As a steel door closes behind, visitors wash hands with a disinfectant and wipe shoes before a second door opens and they enter the growing area.
Plastic and screens keep out unwanted pests. Beneficial insects that kill destructive pests have been released inside, helping control plant damage. Computers and sensors monitor every aspect of the operation -- from water use to the nutrients flowing to the plants in plastic tubes.
The partners have a patent pending on Williford's system and hope growers around the nation might eventually buy it.
"I was an outside farmer most of my life," Williford said. "All those guys are my friends. I don't want them to think I'm trying to find a way to put them out of business. And I don't want them to think I'm poo-pooing field strawberries. I'm trying to give the public an alternative."
Source: Knight Ridder