Strawberries ripen in a Salinas, Calif., field Sept. 16. Prices have risen sharply in the past few weeks as yields have fallen.
Strawberries ripen in a Salinas, Calif., field Sept. 16. Prices have risen sharply in the past few weeks as yields have fallen.

Fresh strawberry prices have spiked as yields dropped on California summer plants well before the arrival of the fall crop.

Flats of eight 1-pound containers shipped for about $20 from Santa Maria and $16 from Salinas and Watsonville Sept. 15, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That was up from $7 to $8 in both California districts Aug. 4.

A warm winter — symptomatic of the state’s drought — brought a quick start to strawberry production this year. Now buyers are seeing the downside of that early surge in volume.

“The crop started pretty heavily back in January, more than typical,” said Jim Grabowski, merchandising manager for Watsonville-based Well-Pict Berries. “Everything got pushed up and just kept coming earlier and earlier. Now the plants aren’t producing as much as they normally would and numbers are running substantially lower than previous Septembers.”

“It’s a good market for the growers,” Cindy Jewell, director of marketing at Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms, said Sept. 15. “The season started early, on some fields a month ahead of time. The plants are just slowing down on production.”

“Our fall crop is starting to kick in down in Santa Maria, so that’s helping to put some more fruit in the pipeline,” she said. “But we’re definitely short. Our northern districts — Watsonville and Salinas — are continually slowing down with regard to volume, so this could continue for a few weeks.”

Well-Pict’s fall strawberries are out of Oxnard. “That crop is running a couple weeks late,” Grabowski said. “It’s not picking up any of the slack yet. It may be the first or second week of October.”

California growers, strawberry producers included, have also felt the pinch of a short labor supply, Jewell said.

“We felt it a lot more this summer than in the spring,” she said. “It’s a huge concern with labor being tight and no movement in Washington on immigration reform. It’s not just berries. It’s across the board — any labor intensive crop is feeling the same effects.”