In our neck of the woods, if you play name association games and say “Plant City” you will most likely get a quick and enthusiastic “Strawberries” response. Some say the two were linked in destiny before dirt.
That may be so. Surely the sandy loam soil a league east of Tampa grows the sweetest, most luscious berries ever to pass the palate. Just as surely, the railroad’s decision to place a depot in the rural community of Itchepackesassa (say that five times fast), a convenient distance from Mr. Henry Plant‘s hotel north of Fort Brooke on the lazy Hillsborough River, laid the foundation for a long term bond. The railroad opened up Florida to wealthy northerners to vacation in sunny Florida, just as it opened new markets for Florida produce.
It didn’t take long for local strawberry growers to learn that northern consumers, up to their pasty white eyeballs in snow, would pay a premium for mid-winter Florida strawberries, ice-packed in large wooden crates called ponies. That was more than a century ago, and although the industry has changed dramatically since then, the close relationship between community and commodity has been constant.
One reason the strawberry family has been so close is that the whole community has often been needed to work together to provide the resources necessary to make strawberry farming possible. When a freeze threatened, everyone went to the fields to cover the plants with pine straw or cypress troughs. Virtually everyone without a city job picked strawberries. During the depression, until 1954, Eastern Hillsborough County schools operated during the summer, so the farm family children could help in the fields. These “Strawberry Schools” are a part of this community’s lore, and participants still have annual reunions to reminisce and embellish on popular tales of the era.
Over the years, the community has grown and the strawberry industry has modernized. Mr. Henry Plant’s railroad was replaced first by the refrigerated tractor-trailer, then also by the air conditioner. Strawberries once consumed primarily in the Northeast, now are a winter treat throughout the world. Farms have gotten larger and mechanized. But in spite of the changes, the Plant City-Dover area is still a Mecca for the sweetest, most luscious strawberries around. Moreover, strawberries remain the commodity that made this community, a family.
Yes, the statistics are impressive. This one county produces about 15 percent of the nation’s strawberries and virtually all the berries grown during the winter. The commodity has an impact on our community approaching $200 million. The 16 million flats produced each year, if placed end to end, would extend from Plant City to Seattle and back again.
But most impressive is the fact that although production in this strawberry haven has been going strong for over a century, the value of the commodity has more than tripled in the last two decades, and could well double in the next decade. If anything, the community’s claim as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World” seems stronger. If you make every recipe in this blog every year, you will be doing your part to keep it that way!