Mar 13, 2019Harrell honored for commitment to Florida strawberries
For more than 40 years, Mark and Sue Harrell have been a fixture of the close-knit grower community of west Florida’s Plant City and Dover.
For 25 years, that’s also meant volunteering time with the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA), a marketing and advocacy group for growers in the state. FSGA recently recognized Mark, a third-generation grower, with a Hall of Fame award, a gesture recognizing his commitment.
While he’s remained involved in strawberry growing for most of that time, Harrell has had quite a few different jobs. He started working with his father in junior high and high school. In the summer of 1975, he began working with his father and brothers full time. He married Sue in 1976, and she also helped them grow strawberries.
Sue said working from daylight until dark, holidays and weekends, was something new for her.
“The crop always came first,” she said. “I remember not opening gifts on Christmas until New Year’s when we had temperatures below freezing during Christmas. You had to stay up all night in the freezing temperatures, protecting the crop, and after temperatures went up above freezing during the day is when you slept. That was a rough year.”
She added, though, that the family always had time together during the offseason.
“The family all got along together and supported each other,” Sue Harrell said. “It was a great way of life.”
In the late 1980s, Harrell’s father decided to get out of growing. Harrell for a few years turned his hand to working for other growers, providing laser leveling and custom grading on farmlands in Florida and Georgia, to get the water to flow properly.
“I thought I knew how everybody farmed, but it was sort of an eye-opener when I got out in different areas,” he said. “I actually learned a lot from it.”
In 1993, Harrell and a business partner began growing again in the Plant City/Dover area, in a rectangle of sandy loam soil, a dead orange grove about 0.75 miles long and 0.25 miles wide, with about 90 acres. The growing season ran from November until April. Harrell was able to produce about 3,000 to 3,500 trays per acre. For large growers, harvesting usually becomes unprofitable around the first week of April, and many growers like Harrell practice double cropping, getting a second crop of melons or cucumbers from the ground.
In the summer of 2016, Harrell’s farming operation was sold. It’s now owned by SweetLife Farms, a privately-held corporation.
“It was sort of sad, because I had been on this particular piece of property for 23 years,” Harrell said. But the memories also motivated him to stay there as the operation’s farm manager.
What works in Florida
The University of Florida continues to produce a regular stream of new berry varieties for growers.
While Harrell is growing propriety varieties for Driscoll’s, he said most independent growers’ mainstay has been Florida Radiance, a berry with good size and taste, but which doesn’t seem to handle the rain well. Brilliance is the next in line to replace Radiance. Florida Beauty, another university variety, has been earning mixed reviews.
Like other growers in the Southeast, Harrell believes Mexican imports are hurting the domestic market prices for fruit, and should face higher tariffs.
“For every flat that’s brought in out of Mexico, there’s one less flat that we can put on the market at a reasonable price,” he said. “The price is driven down, sometimes even because of an excess of fruit between ours and Mexico. They’re fast approaching having more fruit than we are.”
The U.S. government’s H-2A visa program for employing foreign workers has become the Florida grower’s go-to solution for seasonal labor.
“The dependability and willingness to work has been better with the H-2A workers,” Harrell said. “They’re eager to make as much money as possible, so they welcome opportunities to work.”
Plant City is the country’s self-proclaimed Winter Strawberry Capital of the World. Growers in the area are a social group – eating together and vacationing together when they’re not busy farming.
“Most everybody knows everybody,” Harrell said. “There’s a lot of communication between growers. It helps us all to head off a problem before it happens to us all.”
FSGA, a voluntary group of growers, plays an advocacy role when legislative bills could affect growers. It also organizes “Buy Local” and other promotional campaigns for growers.
“They kind of spearhead looking after the growers in various ways,” Harrell said. He’s served on the board of directors multiple times and has spent a time volunteering, conducting media interviews and donating berries for projects and promotions
The Harrell family remains heavily involved in the industry – Sue Harrell is the director of marketing for FSGA, and their son Christopher is with RCS Refrigeration Construction, building commercial refrigerated storage for the growers. Harrell’s daughter–in-law Candace is at Patterson Trucking, which serves many agricultural clients.
At a FSGA banquet in late December, Mark was given the Hall of Fame award, and his family crowded around him for a photo.
“It’s more of an award for years of service,” Harrell said. “The farm I’m on now I’ve been on for 25 years, and going on 26.”
Above, Mark Harrel eats strawberries with his granddaughter. Photos: Sue Harrell