BERRY GOOD

Florida Straw­berry Fes­ti­val has cel­e­brated spring har­vest since 1930

RSWLiving - - Departments - BY ANN MARIE O’PHEL AN

Char­lotte Rosen­berg was queen of the first Straw­berry Fes­ti­val in Plant City, Florida. Nearly nine decades later the fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ing Florida’s straw­berry har­vest runs March 3 to 13. Half a mil­lion vis­i­tors are ex­pected. In 2015, Sa­man­tha Sun in­her­ited the crown first worn by Rosen­berg in 1930. Se­lec­tion of the 2016 queen gets an­nounced Jan. 23 at a pageant in Plant City.

Tech­ni­cally the Florida Straw­berry Fes­ti­val is in its 81st sea­son be­cause― it was halted for six years dur­ing the WWII era. “It is our town’s bread and but­ter,” fes­ti­val pub­lic re­la­tions and me­dia di­rec­tor Lau­ren McNair says of the an­nual March cel­e­bra­tion, which is a top-ranked event in the South­east­ern United States.

Plant City’s Florida Straw­berry Fes­ti­val, staged in­side a two-mile gated radius, is fam­ily ori­ented and of­fers live mu­sic, 22 con­certs, a mid­way of some 85 car­ni­val rides and games, a live­stock show and a Neigh­bor­hood Vil­lage with baked goods and arts and crafts. There are also plenty of ven­dors sell­ing straw­berry-re­lated good­ies such as short­cakes, cook­ies, pies, fried straw­ber­ries, milk­shakes, pizza, ham­burg­ers, le­mon­ade, cheese­cake, tarts, and choco­late-dipped and fresh straw­ber­ries. A big­ger at­trac­tion is a straw­berry short­cake con­test chal­leng­ing par­tic­i­pants to gob­ble 4 pounds in 10 min­utes or less, McNair says.

Sa­man­tha Sun is from Plant City, the un­of­fi­cial Straw­berry Cap­i­tal of the World. She is a model for a Mi­ami agency. A bona fide straw­berry lover, Sun en­joys fresh straw­ber­ries dipped in rich choco­late and spends time pick­ing them with her fam­ily. “The fresh-picked ones usu­ally have the best fla­vor,” she says.

Sun’s du­ties as queen in­cluded serv­ing as the fes­ti­val’s am­bas­sador, par­tic­i­pat­ing in events through­out Florida, ap­pear­ing at other fes­ti­vals and pa­rades, and mak­ing tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances. Sun never imag­ined hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to serve her home­town in such an amaz­ing way, hon­ored to be able to serve as part of Plant City’s royalty in her ten­ure, she says. “This po­si­tion is so much more than just wear­ing a crown, it is an op­por­tu­nity for me to be a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on oth­ers,”

says Sun, who par­tic­u­larly en­joys in­ter­act­ing with kids as part of her royal du­ties.

Florida straw­ber­ries are har­vested Novem­ber through the be­gin­ning of April, and since the fes­ti­val is held in March, it’s right dur­ing the peak sea­son. “It’s a great time in the sea­son for our vis­i­tors to sam­ple our straw­ber­ries, and it’s the per­fect time to cel­e­brate our har­vest,” McNair says.

The straw­berry, a mem­ber of the rose fam­ily, is im­mensely pop­u­lar. Amer­i­can farm­ers pro­duce some 40 bil­lion pounds an­nu­ally—―30 per­cent of the world’s pro­duc­tion―—and it is on a pop­u­lar­ity list pre­ceded only by the ba­nana, ap­ple, wa­ter­melon and grape.

The Straw­berry Fes­ti­val’s great­est strength lies in the sheer num­bers of vol­un­teers pitch­ing in over the year, in­clud­ing 20 full-time staff. “About 2,500 in­di­vid­u­als give their time in var­i­ous ar­eas of the fes­ti­val each year,” says McNair. The vol­un­teers stay plenty busy with youth live­stock shows (steer, beef breed, dairy cat­tle, swine, lambs, chick­ens and rab­bits), con­tests in the Neigh­bor­hood Vil­lage and with Fu­ture Farm­ers of America youth, as well as wel­com­ing the 500,000 straw­berry-lov­ing guests ar­riv­ing each sea­son from all over the world. “The fes­ti­val is an event in which our com­mu­nity takes great pride,” says McNair.

Ann Marie O’Phe­lan is a South­west Florida res­i­dent who loves all of the won­der­ful har­vest that comes out of our state, and es­pe­cially the straw­ber­ries.

The fes­ti­val is an event in which our com­mu­nity takes great pride.” —Lau­ren McNair, Straw­berry Fes­ti­val me­dia and pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor

Fresh straw­ber­ries (above) are vi­tal to Florida’s agri­cul­tural econ­omy. Fes­ti­val-go­ers en­joy great en­ter­tain­ment (be­low) over the event’s 11-day run.

Sa­man­tha Sun (above cen­ter) is the fes­ti­val’s reign­ing queen. Short­cake-eating con­tes­tants (cen­ter) must gob­ble 4 pounds.

Robinson’s Rac­ing Pigs (be­low) com­pete for cook­ies.

Li­ons Club orig­i­nated a Plant City straw­berry fes­ti­val in 1930 to cel­e­brate har­vest. Char­lotte Rosen­berg was the first queen.

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