California strawberry season off to fast start

03/14/2014 11:21:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Much like a race horse at the famed San Anita track in Southern California, the state’s strawberry crop got off to an early and fast start and it looks to continue strong throughout the season.

Grower-shippers credit unusually warm weather during the winter, which hastened plant maturity and promoted excellent fruit quality.

“Volume and quality are the best ever,” said Vince Lopes, vice president sales, West — Naturipe Farms LLC. “For strawberries, great quality usually goes hand in hand with good volume.”

Chris Christian, vice president of marketing for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission, agreed.

“A good start to the season is always good for growers,” she said.

For the week ending March 1, the commission reported 11.16 million 9-pound tray equivalents had been shipped fresh so far this year compared to 6.89 million at the same time last year and 9 million in 2012.

West Lake FreshVicky Boyd(from left) Louis Ivanovich, partner, and sales associates Sandra Malatesta and Caleb Randall provide brokerage services to several strawberry grower-shippers.Because dry weather accompanied the warm temperatures, berry quality had been stellar until early March rains, said Sal Barajas, a salesman with Better Produce Inc.

The Santa Maria-based grower-shipper historically has shipped from the Santa Maria region, but this season added Oxnard production.

“The size is up there, and there’s good color,” he said. Sometimes early berries have white shoulders and the internal color isn’t as a deep a red. But Barajas said record warm temperatures this season helped produce very attractive fruit.

Barajas said in mid-February, his firm historically would have shipped up to 10,000 trays. This year, volumes appear to be about a month ahead of schedule and Better Produce had shipped more than 60,000 trays.

Charlie Staka, sales director for CBS Farms, Watsonville, said shipments also were way ahead of last year. Early March rains temporarily interrupted harvest, but he said it was much-needed moisture.

“I think it’s definitely going to be a benefit in the long run,” he said. “We do need the rain — we can deal with a little bit of crop damage.”

Darwin Reich, Salinas-based director of California operations for Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms, said the rains came at a good time.

“In the northern districts, we definitely got a real benefit from the rain,” he said. “With no rain last fall and early winter, some guys were running into some salt toxicity. Any time you get natural rainfall, it’s a benefit to the soil.”

Wish Farms has production in Santa Maria and Salinas. Reich said the Santa Maria fields looked “fantastic, probably the best I’ve seen them in the last three years.”

“There was good early plant development and very clean fruit. Santa Maria, time-wise, should ramp up for that Easter period. That’s always a key holiday, and this year the way Santa Maria is sitting, there should be some really quality fruit and volume out of here.”

Wish Farms’ Salinas fields were a few weeks behind.

The season typically starts in Southern California and Oxnard, then moves north into Santa Maria and eventually into Salinas-Watsonville as the season progresses.

Jim Grawbowski, marketing director for Watsonville-based Well-Pict Berries, said most production is close to a month ahead of schedule.

“I think it should be really good for Easter,” he said. “Because of the early start, we’re anticipating all three districts operating by Easter. So barring any weather related catastrophe, we should see plenty of strawberries available for Easter time.”

With everything ahead of schedule, some districts could also be ending earlier than they typically would.

“Because Oxnard started early and came on strong, the only down side is it may end earlier than usual,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms LLC, Watsonville. What it will mean is less overlap among the other districts, with Oxnard likely continuing through about Mother’s Day, she said.

During 2013, the state shipped about 194.76 million trays, according to the commission.

This season, growers planted 39,073 acres, about 6.7% less than in 2013. Much of the reduction came from the Oxnard area, Christian said.

But she said she didn’t expect the roughly 2,600-acre loss to affect volume much, since the unusually dry winter minimized early-season crop loss from rain.

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