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Strawberry farmers rebound after coronavirus lockdown left many financially devastated

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Posted at 1:34 PM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 18:03:12-05

PLANT CITY, Fla. — Farmers in the Tampa Bay area are rebounding one year after the coronavirus shutdown left many of them financially devastated.

“Farming’s surviving some years are good a lot of years are bad,” said Matt Parke farm manager of Parkesdale Farms.

Parke says 2020 was one of the bad years for Parkesdale Farms.

The Plant City farm is known for its strawberries but also grows a few vegetables. Its produce ships to places up the east coast, to as far as Canada. Parkes says 80% of his strawberry crop was picked before the country went into lockdown last March.

“One the 14th is when the world stopped turning and we stopped picking that day,” Parke said.

That's because a large amount of his produce goes to the foodservice industry, but with restaurant dining rooms empty, and hotels and cruise ships closed, the demand quickly dried up.

“I had to mow some vegetables that hadn’t even been picked, under because I couldn’t pick them, because nobody would take them. So, for two-three weeks, it was mayhem trying to figure out what to do with what you had in the farm,” said Parke.

53 acres of crops were destroyed. Parke tells ABC Action News the panic buying at grocery stores at the beginning, is why Parkesdale Farms survived the pandemic.

“If we wouldn’t have had the market going into the pandemic that we had, we probably would have been in a whole other situation, but we had a little bit of a good market for about three weeks leading up to the shutdown and that helped us get through that hump,” he said.

For Carl Grooms, the co-owner of Fancy farms, applying for loans and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which provided payments to farmers, kept his farm open for business.

“A lot of farmers might not be in business. When you have a real problem and there are hundreds and thousands, to millions of dollars of income that are not generated, it puts you in a real deficit situation and to try to convince a loan institute you need money is difficult,” explained Grooms.

While sales for the foodservice industry have fallen, Fancy Farms is reinventing itself. Grooms’ children opened the Fancy Farms market in December as a way to move strawberries and keep the family legacy alive.

“With the pandemic hitting, we saw a decrease in production and being able to move our product, so having this available where customers can come in and get fresh strawberries and fresh produce, it’s been really good,” said Kristi Grooms, Owner of Fancy Farms Market.

You can purchase fresh produce, and all kinds of strawberry desserts including milkshakes, cookies and shortcake and eat them right on the farm.

“These are family recipes, some of the ones that my mom’s made, and my aunt, my dad’s sister. So, it’s just been a big family affair now,” Kristi said.

The Florida Strawberry Growers Association said there has been a shift with more people buying farm-fresh fruits and vegetables which has been critical in sustaining local farmers.

“When the pandemic hit a lot of people really started thinking about what they eat and trying to stay healthy, so you had this pretty large movement across the nation about making healthy choices and strawberries are actually a super-food,” said Kenneth Parker, Executive Director of Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

The annual Strawberry Festival is a celebration of the fruit that local farmers grow, that has a more than $1 billion economic impact on Hillsborough County.

It was one of the last festivals growers attended before the pandemic.

“The festival is sort of like an advertisement billboard for our strawberry industry, so many people come from everywhere to look for strawberries,” Grooms said.

“It’s just a way to celebrate the fruit of our labor,” added Parke.

And many farmers are looking forward to the festival, as they turn the page on a devastating year.