Strawberry shippers hope for strong spring movement

02/18/2013 04:11:00 PM
Tom Burfield

OXNARD, Calif. — There was no love lost between Mother Nature and Southern California strawberry grower-shippers over Valentine’s Day, but growers are hopeful that they can patch things up in the coming weeks.

Rain and cold temperatures that affected small fruit and blossoms in January slowed production the week before Valentine’s Day. Then a freeze hit the weekend before the holiday, said Don Hobson, vice president of sales and marketing for Boskovich Farms Inc.

“Production is down to nothing,” he said Feb. 11.

Yields for Deardorff Family Farms were about two-thirds of what they should be, said salesman Doug Lowthorp.

Effects of the weekend freeze depended on field location, but the consequences were not nearly as serious as those from the January freeze, he said.

Industrywide, the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission said year-to-date shipments totaled about 3.9 million trays as of the week ending Feb. 9. Last year at the same time, the figure was 4.4 million trays.

The f.o.b. price for trays of eight 1-pound clamshell containers on Feb. 11 was $12 for medium/large berries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

Russ Widerburg, sales manager for Boskovich Farms, said that the open-market price ranged from $14-16, but some there were some commitments at the $12 level.

Though the latest freeze should slow down production, Lowthorp expected “a fair amount of fruit” the week of Feb. 18, with supplies gradually increasing in future weeks, assuming weather remains stable.

Post-Valentine’s Day temperatures were expected to shoot into the 70-degree range, and grower-shippers were hopeful for the coming season.

“You’ll probably see a good amount of promotable fruit out there after the Valentine’s Day push,” Widerburg said.

“Hopefully, there will be lots of good promotions going after the holiday.”

It was too early to tell what the market will be like for the next big strawberry occasion, Easter, March 31.

“I think we’re going to need (retailers) to keep the fruit moving,” Widerburg said.

Promotions are key, agreed David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff Family Farms. But retailers don’t typically do much strawberry promoting in December or January because no one expects extra berries to be available, he said.

This year, early production was strong out of Florida and Mexico, Cook said, and that sent early prices plummeting.

Prices on Oxnard fruit were as low as $6 for a short time in January, after a hot spell brought on a wave of fruit, Widerburg said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever sold fruit for $6 in January,” he said.

Fortunately for growers, the drop was short-lived.

“It corrected itself in a hurry,” he said.

“The market has been depressed here for the last three weeks because of the production coming out of Florida and Mexico,” Lowthorp said Feb. 7.

Valentine’s Day production also was down in Oxnard for Watsonville, Calif.-based Dole Berry Co. LLC, said Vincent Ferrante, director of farming and harvesting, West.

But he was optimistic for the post-Valentine’s Day period.

“We’re anticipating, following Valentine’s Day, the fruit to begin to come back in,” he said.

“We’re ahead of production” for the season overall, he said.

Grower-shippers seemed optimistic for spring.

“The fields are very healthy, and I think you’ll have a good push of bloom in early March,” said Matt Kawamura, partner in Orange County Produce, Irvine.

The fruit that is available looks good, growers said.

“Following the little bit of frost and rain that we’ve had, this week the fruit has started to look very, very good,” Ferrante said Feb. 7.

“Quality (of the berries) has been fantastic,” Lowthorp said. “My problem is, we’re just not getting enough of them.”

Like other grower-shippers, Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC experienced slow plant growth before Valentine’s Day and “tighter supply than we would like for this time of year,” said Robert Verloop, executive vice president of marketing.

However, Verloop remained optimistic about the coming weeks.

If current weather conditions hold, the plants should experience “a good, strong flush of leaves and bloom,” he said.

“We’re going to be looking at some really good opportunities for late March and April.”

He expected a strong season overall.



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