Rain, frost slow strong start to California strawberry season

March 19, 2018 08:58 AM
California’s 2018 strawberry season got off to a rousing start, with volume as of March 3 more than double that of last year — 7.78 million trays compared to 3.7 million trays in 2017.

California’s 2018 strawberry season got off to a rousing start, with volume as of March 3 more than double that of last year — 7.78 million trays compared to 3.7 million trays in 2017.

But the warm weather in December, January and part of February that brought on the early berries gave way to freezing or near-freezing temperatures by the second half of February and early March, and that was followed by rain off and on that delayed picking.

By mid-March, some growers anticipated ample supplies for Easter and early April, while others believed it would be mid- to late April before promotable volume would be available.

“It’s been really cold the last few weeks,” Paul Kawamura, director of sales for Irvine, Calif.-based Gem Pack LLC, said March 9.

“There were three weeks of near-historic low temperatures,” he said.

As a result, the Santa Maria and Watsonville districts suffered significant frost damage.

“The early start that was anticipated for those districts has been pushed back quite a bit,” Kawamura said.

He didn’t expect to pick sizable volume out of the northern districts until the end of April.

The situation was a bit different in Oxnard, Calif., and Orange County to the south.

Neither of those districts suffered serious front damage, and Kawamura said Gem Pack, which has significant acreage in Oxnard and some in Orange County, expected to have promotable volume around Easter.

But even in Oxnard, he said, “There are definitely some fields that are a little later.”

At Success Valley Produce LLC in Oxnard, Backus Nahas, director of marketing, said March 12 that the company expected to have plenty of berries for Easter and beyond.

The company’s Santa Maria berries are grown in a somewhat protected area and weren’t hurt as badly as some others, he said. And the firm has plenty of acreage in Oxnard and still was shipping strawberries from Florida.

“There’s going to be plenty of promotable volume,” he said.

Salinas, Calif.-based Red Blossom Sales Inc., which grows strawberries in Santa Maria, lost up to 30% of its product as a result of the freeze, said Craig Casca, vice president and director of sales.

He didn’t expect supplies to recover until mid-April.

At Salinas-based Naturipe Berry Growers, Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations, said he expected Oxnard to peak in April with Santa Maria right behind.

Rain was slowing down the crop short term, he said, “but long term, your crop is still coming.”

“After Easter, through Mother’s Day, is probably going to be a good time to promote because a lot of the production is going to start hitting,” Moriyama said.

At Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc., Jim Grabowski, director of marketing, said Santa Maria fields lost some bloom and likely will be about two weeks later than normal.

“Other than that, Southern California should in good shape after Easter,” he said, barring more bad weather.

By mid-April, he said, “Oxnard should be cranking like crazy, and Santa Maria will be kicking into production, too.”

Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms likely won’t have promotable volume until sometime after Easter, said Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing.

The company doesn’t have a lot of acreage in Oxnard, and Santa Maria was just coming back into production after the rain and frost.

“We’re a little nervous,” she said March 12.

“Instead of being super-excited about the fact that we were early this year, now we’re going to be late again,” she said.

Looking at prices, f.o.b. prices for trays of eight 1-pound clamshell containers March 12 were mostly $12, $2 less than the same time in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, fall planted acreage continued its downward trend, but the California Strawberry Commission said production actually has increased.

This year, the state’s growers reported 33,791 acres of strawberries, down from 36,387 acres in 2017. All districts showed decreases.

The commission says planted acreage has declined by 13% over the past three years, while total volume has increased by 6%, resulting in two consecutive years of record fruit production.

“Currently, weekly shipment volume in summer and fall months is projected to equal or surpass 2017 totals,” said Chris Christian, senior vice president of the commission.

Last year, the state’s grower-shippers produced more than 206 million trays of strawberries. 

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