Best Ways to Enjoy In-Season Florida Strawberries
“In the winter, Florida feeds the nation,” Hydro Harvest Farms owner John Lawson of Ruskin told Florida Culture recently. A lion’s share of produce in the winter, especially for the Eastern part of the U.S., is grown in Florida thanks to the state’s temperate climate. However, if you don’t live in the Sunshine State, you may not realize that strawberry is one of the state’s winter shining stars. Florida ranks second in the U.S. for strawberry crops (second behind California) and produces nearly 100% of the nation’s winter strawberry supply. The majority of the state’s strawberries are grown in Hillsborough and Manatee Counties in the central/southwest part of the state.
Considering the state’s brisk strawberry business in the winter and that strawberries have grown in popularity thanks to their nutritional superpowers (they are the fifth preferred fruit in the U.S.), then it makes sense that strawberries deserve some celebrating by locals and visitors alike. Here are a few of the best ways you can enjoy Florida’s in-season strawberries.
–Pick your own. By picking your own strawberries, you can choose what you like and get the berries as fresh as they can be. A number of farms offer hydroponic strawberries, meaning that they are grown in water with special nutrients, not in the ground, so you don’t have to kneel for them as you would in a more traditional setting. Check out localharvest.org for referrals to local farms. Three that we like that have hydroponic strawberries are Hydro Harvest in Ruskin, Hydro Taste in Myakka City, and O’Brien Farms in Bradenton.
When you pick the berries, cut them off from the stem as opposed to right above the fruit itself. By doing so, the fruit receives more nutrients. Strawberries don’t continue to ripen after you pick them, so make sure they are fully red and not pink or white. And don’t get fooled by size, says Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms (a big name in the business). Strawberries can taste great whether they are small, medium, or large. Put them in the fridge and eat them as fresh as possible, as they spoil easily.
–Try strawberry shortcake. Who doesn’t love strawberry shortcake? That mix of whipped cream, strawberries, and cake merge together for a taste bud treat. Although a number of Florida farms offer strawberry shortcake this time of year, Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City (Plant City, not far from Tampa, is considered the heart of strawberry farms) offers its massive strawberry shortcake from December to mid-April.
When we first heard about Parkesdale, we envisioned a quaint farm market with a picnic table or two outside to sit and enjoy the shortcake. Wrong. During our recent visit on a Saturday afternoon, we learned that everyone and their grandmother (and some great-grandmothers too), flock to Parkesdale for strawberry shortcake and yummy strawberry milkshakes. There were even tour buses. The market has pictures of presidents, including President Obama, visiting the place. The line to order is long, although staff try to keep it moving along. The market has a variety of other locally grown produce items. Just plan your visit during down times if you don’t like crowds.
–Celebrate strawberry cheer at the annual Florida Strawberry Festival. Held in the aforementioned Plant City, this year on Feb. 28 through March 10, the festival features a number of music acts, comedy reviews, kids’ activities, and even crowns a Strawberry Festival Queen. This year’s acts include Chubby Checker, Alan Jackson, Martina McBridge, Scotty McCreery, and Blake Shelton. There are also a number of county-fair like activities (corndog eating contest, swine sale, parades, and lamb jumping). And while we’d like to think the festival sells an abundance of sweet and healthy strawberries, any promotion we see for the festival seems to focus on everything deep fried–there’s even a Fried Corn on the Cob Team Eating Contest on Friday, March 1. Don’t miss it.
–Weigh in on how your strawberries taste. The next time you buy strawberries at the supermarket this time of year, check out the package. There’s a good chance it comes from Wish Farms. Wish Farms has a new program called “How’s my picking?”, where you can enter a special 16-digit code unique to the package and provide feedback on the flavor of your berries, says Wishnatzki. That code tracks where the crop was grown, when it was picked, and other factors. Wish Farms is using that feedback to try to provide better-tasting strawberries, Wishnatzki explains.