Just two to three weeks into the Oxnard, Calif., strawberry deal, some grower-shippers already liked what they were seeing.
Ventura County strawberries won’t peak until spring, but January harvests sufficed to draw some interest from East Coast and Midwest buyers seeking an alternative to weather-challenged production in Florida and Central Mexico.
“We’re advanced for this time of year because of the warm, dry weather,” John King, vice president of sales for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, said Jan. 14. “We’re probably at least 30% ahead of what we expected for this week. We had really good early volume last year too, but we also had competition. This year Florida and Central Mexico have had their share of cold and rain.”
“We’re growing in Florida and getting rain and cold off and on,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for Watsonville, Calif.-based California Giant Berry Farms. “Because weather has been disruptive, it has made for a tough year so far. In California the volume and flavor are great, but not too different than typical because the days are still short.”
Flats of eight 1-pound containers shipped f.o.b. from Oxnard for $18 to $20 Jan. 13, compared to $12 a year ago according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same amount from Florida shipped for $16.90 to $18.90, up from $8.90 last year.
Nationwide, California has been the bright spot on the weather map, King said.
“We could use some rain, but it’s warm and dry through the month of January,” he said. “Because we’ve been blessed by great weather, the quality is amazing.”
Andrew & Williamson is also producing strawberries in Baja — which like Oxnard is ahead of schedule, according to the grower-shipper — as well as central Mexico. The Baja season is nearly identical to Oxnard’s; both will go through June.
“The East Coast is in,” King said, referring to the California strawberry market. “Normally they wouldn’t be in at this level until March. I think when Florida and Central Mexico recover, we’ll see some of that business go back East. But for the time being it’s great.”
The Ventura County spring crop did feel effects, though, of the December cold spell that had a bigger impact inland on citrus.
“They did get a little frost which probably damaged flowers in some locations,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission. “Now they’ve got flowers on the plants and they’ll be starting to ramp up soon.”
Spring strawberry production is down in the Oxnard area compared to last year, perhaps 1,800 acres or so.
“Last year was a bad season for everybody,” said John Krist, chief executive officer at the Ventura County Farm Bureau. “There was just too much fruit on the market at once and prices were very low. A lot of growers here and in the state had losses. Some dialed back and found something else to plant this year.”
Last fall growers had to do without the normal water release from Lake Piru. That cut available water by 50% during the crucial month of October, Krist said, when the acreage in production now was established. But it seems not to have had a big effect on the crop.
“We did a lot of staggering and some workshops so people could figure out better ways to manage their irrigation,” Krist said. “We were really fortunate then that we didn’t have a spell of hot windy weather, which is common in the fall. But no forecast I’ve seen suggests we’re going to have a wet year this year.”