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Local farmers need to give public access to strawberries

Though the weather has warmed up, the Tampa Bay area is still feeling repercussions from the January freeze. Local strawberry farmers, who pumped excessive amounts of water to keep their crops from freezing, are now letting the fruit rot in the fields unpicked.

Property was damaged and traffic was disrupted in January when the aquifer dropped a record 60 feet and sinkholes opened up all over Hillsborough County, including one near USF’s campus that shut down 50th Street from Fowler Avenue to Elm Drive.

All this was done to save local farmers’ livelihoods. The tactic seemed to succeed at first. Farmers were able to save many of the plants, which produced more fruit after the weather warmed up.

“The cold weather shocks the plants,” Gary Wishnatzki, head of Wishnatzki Farms in Plant City, said to the St. Petersburg Times. “It induced more blooms.”

Combined with competition from other states, an abundance of strawberries drove prices down so low that farmers can’t make money. Now, ripe and healthy strawberries are being abandoned or tilled into the soil.

While farmers have an economic motive not to harvest, it is inexcusable waste to leave good food to rot. More farmers should allow visitors to come and pick strawberries or open up the fields to volunteer organizations that could pick and distribute the food to needy Florida families.

Too many farmers are seeing the issue from an economic standpoint. Strawberries usually go for $18 per box, but an oversaturated market has driven prices down to about $5 per box, according to 10 Connects News.

At that price, the cost of harvesting outweighs profits. However, farmers should not see the crops as useless. Hillsborough residents who dealt with sinkholes and dried up wells would surely love to taste the fruit of their unwarranted suffering.

Some farmers apparently fear that giving the public access to the fields would make them vulnerable to lawsuits — should anyone get hurt. Rather than use that as an excuse, farmers should follow necessary precautions to remove liability — but that would take effort.

The risk of a lawsuit is better than the loss of esteem local farmers will suffer in the community’s eyes for wasting food.

More strawberry growers should follow the example of Wishnatzki Farms, which opened its field Saturday to anyone in exchange for a $1 donation to Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides early education and child care to low-income, rural working families.

The strawberries may not be profitable for farmers, but they’re not worthless if used in the correct manner.