Caroline Alderman Perocchi, mother of Dale Perocchi Bliss; date unknown. Caroline’s father, Gilbert Lee Alderman, farmed 20 acres of strawberries on his farm in Plant City. / Courtesy of Dale Bliss

Editor’s note: This is the first half of Dale Bliss’ story on the changing strawberry industry. The second half will run Monday, Oct. 17.

Strawberries have been a favorite since the early Romans began eating this mysterious, exotic wild berry. Later, the French began domesticating the wild plants. This new, sweeter and tastier berry spread throughout Europe and finally came to America around 1850.

Strawberries are grown in different countries, but the U.S. is the largest producer, with Mexico tapping on her heels as America’s biggest competitor. California produces the lion’s share of this vibrant berry in the U.S., but Florida still grows the majority of the winter strawberries. In fact, Plant City, my hometown, is nicknamed the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.”

Florida Strawberry / Courtesy

Strawberries ready for harvest. / Courtesy of

The small grower could feed his family by farming strawberries, which is what our maternal grandfather, Gilbert Lee Alderman, did by farming 20 acres of these beautiful gems. It was a hard life. He scratched just enough from the dirt to feed, house and clothe his family; not many extras.

Our mother, Caroline Alderman Perocchi, was his only child. She and her mother, Katie Blake Kendrick Alderman, would help with the everyday chores. My son, George Eli Blake Bliss, is named after his great-grandmother Katie Blake Kendrick Alderman and his grandfather “Cowboy George” Perocchi. Granddaddy would plow the fields with his mule, Old Dan, to prepare the ground.

Times change in the Florida strawberry industry

Today the Florida strawberry industry has exploded, and growing the berries is all about profits. Many farmers have become investors, buying up land to transform it into huge strawberry fields. Then, when a developer comes to them, they are ready to sell out for even larger profits.

Many strawberry patches have become smaller – 5 acres or less – areas of ground used by amateur home gardeners or hobbyists. Strawberries can also be found in back-porch hanging baskets and backyard planters.

Granddaddy’s field was in a spot that would get plenty of sunlight, which was so important. He would start preparing the ground around the end of August and then, usually, plant around mid-October. He relied on tradition and on his farmer’s intuition to know when the time was right for planting.

Today they are planted earlier, by the middle or end of September. This is so they will come in earlier and start being harvested before California’s berries, thus making a larger profit. Now strawberries are engineered and tested for shipping, and not so much for flavor.

When the temperatures dropped and cooler nights arrived, Granddaddy would let us know that planting was upon us. With the field already plowed and ready for the plants to go into the ground, he would harness up Old Dan and prepare the ground in double rows. The delicate plants were spaced about 12 inches apart.

The bare root plants were very fragile and had to be handled with care. It was a painstaking task to get these little jewels into the ground. He was careful not to plant too deep or too shallow; he didn’t want the roots exposed.

Dale Bliss feels blessed to be able to live on the same Plant City farm where she was born and raised. Her father, “Cowboy George” Perocchi, called Dale his “little crate-maker” because she made wooden boxes for their vegetables.

Read more from Dale Bliss and her “Life on the Farm” series.