Plant City - The 73rd annual Florida Strawberry Festival was held Feb. 28th through March 9th in Plant City. Along with the South Florida Fair, Florida State Fair and Miami-Dade County Fair and Exhibition it is one of four Top 50 fairs in Florida and, because they are held early in the year, an indicator of business for the season.
Helen Kent of the festival said figures for the 2008 event were not yet available for release but she did say the event had a successful year. Five days of rain on the closing weekend did hurt attendance.
For the first time this year, the festival had an exclusive outlet for advance and discount ticket sales, Sweetbay Supermarkets. Through March 9th, Sweetbay sold tickets for $8 for adults and $4 for children at their locations in DeSoto, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee
, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.
Regular price tickets were $10 for adults and $5 for children. Advance tickets from Sweetbay saved adults $2 and children $1.
The festival is filled with competitions and contests for youth and adults combined with exhibits of agriculture, commerce, horticulture, fine arts, livestock, homemade goods, crafts, and parades. Each day there are events such as a baby parade, youth poultry show, youth steer show and auction, the grand parade and a photography contest for guests to enjoy
Of course, the Strawberry has pride of place at the event and many strawberry delights such as strawberry shortcake, strawberry milkshakes, strawberry sundaes, strawberry cobbler, strawberry ice cream, and just plain strawberries are available for purchase.
One highlight of the event is the annual Strawberry-eating contest. This year, ten participants vied to win the title. The contestants were allowed 10 minutes to consume four pounds of strawberry shortcake complete with whipped cream. For the first two minutes, participants were not allowed any utensils, they could only use their mouths to consume as much shortcake as possible. After the initial two minutes, the contestants were given spoons to continue the competition.
Thomas "Tiny" Hawthorne won the contest after only 5 minutes 41 seconds. Tiny, now a four-time champion, reclaimed his title after taking a year off from the competition. Tiny was the champion
in 2003, 2005 and 2006.
In addition to all the food and contests the festival also has plenty of free grounds entertainment. Booked this year were Vocal Trash, Grandpa Cratchet, Dennis Lee, Runa Pacha, Southern Star Bluegrass Band, Robinson,s Paddling Porkers and Boards, Bikes and Blades.
The Southern Chevy Dealer,s Soundstage was the location for some of the hottest names in country and gospel music. Performers such as Alan Jackson, Sugarland, Josh Turner, Travis Tritt, Tom Jones, Trace Adkins, Billy Ray Cyrus, Neal McCoy and Ronnie Milsap all came to perform at the festival.
Reserved seats sold for $10 - $40 with most seats selling in the $10 - $15 dollar range. In addition to the reserved seats, about 4,000 free seats were available on a first come, first-served basis to guests who had paid festival admission.
Another highlight of the Florida Strawberry Festival is Jim Murphy,s Might Bluegrass Shows midway. In 2008, the midway contained over 80 rides and attractions supplied by Bluegrass Shows and some of the best independent operators in the country.
Jim Murphy, president of Bluegrass Shows said "The show was going great, we were up until the rain hit us the last weekend". Before the rains came, the show was seeing excellent crowds, hopefully indicative of a strong fair season to come.
The 2009 Florida Strawberry Festival is scheduled for February 26 - March 8, 2009.