I’m in Duette, Florida, which consists of the intersection of two state roads, a historic one-room schoolhouse—now a museum—and not much else. The sun rose an hour ago, and the dew is still on the strawberry fields that surround me. Hundreds and hundreds of acres of strawberry fields.
This is Wish Farms, and it’s the largest contiguous strawberry farm in the world, according to Wish Farms owner Gary Wishnatzki, who says the farm goes on for four miles. The strawberries growing in those fields are the familiar red ones.
But I’m here to see something very different that’s growing on a tiny corner of the farm.
At first glance, the plants look the same as the others: with healthy green leaves and big snow-white blossoms. But these berries are a delicate blush color, with gradations on each berry ranging from white to pink. I pinch one off its stem, and taste it.
It’s slightly softer than normal, and at first bite it tastes like a classic strawberry—sweet with a little acidity. And then, something different comes into focus. Gary describes it as tropical notes, like pineapple. “It’s a very unique flavor,” he says. For me, it tastes a little like pear.
These white strawberries, or pineberries, as they’re also called, could be a boon for Florida strawberry growers, Gary says. “This has the potential to do way more good for Florida growers than any trade deal could do.”
“It’s a calling card for Florida,” he says. “Unlike the red varieties, they’re not planning to release it to Mexico,” whose strawberry season overlaps Florida’s.
Authorities will be able to police these unusual white strawberries, which would be very difficult to do with ubiquitous red berries. If some white strawberries start getting shipped in from Mexico, they’ll know it’s a pirated, unlicensed variety.
“We compete very fiercely on red strawberries with Mexico, and they’ve taken a lot of the market share in the last 10 years,” he says. “This, I believe, will bring back some of that market share that Florida’s lost, because retailers in the Midwest that have been buying from Mexico. If they want these, they’re going to have to come to Florida to get them. And maybe they’ll take some red strawberries, too, when they pick these up.”
Gary says he first spotted white strawberries in Europe about 10 years ago, and has been looking for a way to grow them in Florida ever since. He contacted Vance Whitaker, a scientist with the University of Florida’s strawberry breeding program—and by chance, Vance was already trying to grow the pale fruit.
I called Vance Whitaker at his office in a research center in Wimauma and asked him how he first became interested in this strange-looking berry. He said that in 2012 a friend of his traveled to Japan, where he bought white strawberries in a market. The friend saved the seeds and sent them to Vance.
“We germinated the seeds and got this little white strawberry,” he says. “We crossed that to our red Florida strawberries in hopes that we could combine the white color with the traits we need to grow a strawberry in Florida.”
It took a couple of generations of careful cultivation, he says, to develop Florida Pearl, which is now the trade name for the white strawberry that’s growing at Wish Farms and at other farms in the state.
Vance says that initially, he pursued the development of this white strawberry as a kind of intellectual puzzle. “For me, it was fascinating from a scientific standpoint,” he says, “to try to understand if we could get the white color in a Florida strawberry. … To be honest, I thought it would just be a gimmick, just something that I was enjoying doing. I didn’t anticipate the level of interest from the commercial growers. And I’m glad I was wrong about that!”
He said there were only a total of 12 acres of white strawberries growing in Florida this year, so they might not be easy to find in grocery stores. But the white strawberries have done well in test markets so far, and growers will be increasing the acreage in production when they plant in October. They’ll be more easily available by the spring of 2022.
Wish Farms is marketing the Florida Pearl as “Pink-A-Boo” berries, and they place a sticker with a picture of the white strawberry on the container to show that this is what they’re supposed to look like. They’re white, but these berries are indeed ripe.