California strawberry growers work to catch up

03/25/2013 10:15:00 AM
Tom Burfield

California strawberry growers are hoping that retailers won’t wait until the next major strawberry occasion — Mother’s Day, May 12 — to promote their berries.

Cool winter weather caused a slow start for the state’s strawberry season, but as temperatures begin to rise, growers have set out to make up for lost time.

Supplies were just starting to build for Easter, and grower-shippers expect the recent warm weather to bring on berries in big numbers.

There should be plenty of the fruit on hand from Oxnard and Santa Maria through Mother’s Day, when Oxnard starts to wind down.

As of March 16, the state’s growers had shipped almost 12 million trays, according to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission. That compares with 15.4 million trays for the same period in 2012.

Trays of eight 1-pound clamshell containers of medium-large strawberries from the Oxnard and Santa Maria districts sold for $13-14 f.o.b. March 18, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Oxnard district was on course to peak around Easter, Russ Widerburg, sales manager for Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, said.

The Santa Maria district kicked off in late February for some shippers, including Salinas-based Red Blossom Sales Inc.

Craig Casca, chief executive officer and director of sales, said he expected light volume out of that region by the end of March.

“Fruit looks fantastic and tastes even better,” he said in early March.

The season also was progressing well in California for Estero, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.

“Overall, all of our districts are looking good,” said Walt Maitoza, vice president of operations for Salinas-based Naturipe Berry Growers.

Jose Corona, president of Corona Marketing, Santa Maria, hopes to benefit from the late start.

“We planted a little bit later in the season, so we’re hoping to get that late market,” he said.

Watsonville-based Dole Berry Farms LLC started harvesting in Santa Maria the first week of March, said Vince Ferrante, director of farming and harvesting operations.

“Normally, the startup begins with a few hundred boxes a day,” he said. “With the cold weather holding back the ripening, followed by a few warm days last week, it was several thousand boxes the first day,” he said March 6.

Quality out of Santa Maria as well as the other regions in California is excellent, he said, though production has been slow because of the cooler weather.

“We anticipate the volume to significantly increase post-Easter,” he said.

Louis Ivanovich, principal in West Lake Fresh, Watsonville, said he anticipates good volume in California as berries rebound from abnormally cold weather.

“April will be a tremendous volume month,” he said. “Plants are well rested and ready to run the race.”

He said he expects Oxnard and Santa Maria to overlap because of the late start in Oxnard, with Santa Maria ramping up with respectable numbers by April 10 and heavy volume by late April or early May.

Although some berries were trickling out of Watsonville as early as the end of February, that district won’t be a factor until around May 10, he said. Watsonville-Salinas typically peaks the first week of June.

Ivanovich said he expects volume to be great for Mother’s Day.

“We’ll have a lot of stemming material,” he said.

Because of heavy post-Easter volume, Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Inc., Watsonville, said he hopes retailers will continue to promote strawberries.

“We’re relying heavily on our trading partners to continue to stay aggressive at retail because we will certainly need that environment for the amount of crop that we’re going to have coming off in April.”

He expected to start walking Watsonville fields in late April and said plenty of berries should be available for Mother’s Day and Memorial Day promotions.

Early predictions were that there will be a lot of fruit in the marketplace during the month of April, agreed Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville.

“Hopefully, winter will end on the East Coast, consumers will come outside, and there will be a lot of demand for strawberries during the month of April,” she said.

Salinas-based Colorful Harvest LLC was shipping out of Oxnard and Santa Maria in early March, said Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner.

He said the company was running about three weeks behind and should start picking in Watsonville April 8. He said he expects strong volume in May and June from a “premium-quality berry crop.”



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