Unusually low temperatures in Florida during January slowed strawberry production there and opened an opportunity for Southern California grower-shippers to penetrate markets east of the Mississippi.

Meanwhile, above-average temperatures in Southern California resulted in heavy volume and provided grower-shippers with plenty of fruit, allowing them to reap strong returns.

“The market has been good ever since we started six weeks ago,” said salesman Doug Lowthorp of Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif., the last week of January.

Demand outweighed supply in the eastern U.S. and Canada, which usually are served by Florida growers.

The company enjoyed a 70% increase in business east of the Mississippi compared with last year, Lowthorp said.

Southern California shippers usually cover the western U.S. and the Midwest to keep freight costs down.

“This year, there has been such good demand going east, the markets have been good everywhere. That includes eastern Canada,” he said. “It’s perfect for us. Unfortunately, it’s not a great scenario for Florida.”

Watsonville, Calif.-based CBS Farms saw a 30% increase in business to the east during January, said Charlie Staka, director of sales.

The company also sources strawberries from central Mexico.

“Every time Florida runs short, either Oxnard or central Mexico picks up their shortage,” he said.

Watsonville-based California Giant Inc. has a small strawberry operation in Florida, as well as Southern California and Mexico, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing.

The company learned early on that weather can be an issue, she said.

“When you’re trying to supply customers on a year-round basis, the more growing regions you have, the better chance you’re going to have fruit on any given day,” she said.

“The fact that we have (production in) California, Mexico and Florida gives us an opportunity to at least have a steady stream of fruit,” Jewell said.

Southern California growers were able to capitalize on the cold weather in Florida and a freeze situation and storm in central Mexico early this winter, said Matt Kawamura, a partner in Orange County Produce LLC, Irvine, Calif.

Prices were “much, much better” this December and January than they were last year, when California, Florida and Mexico all came on strong with plenty of volume at the same time, he said.

“We shipped a lot more in December and January back East than we ever have because they didn’t have the (Florida) option,” he said. “It’s definitely been a very tight situation for berries in December and January.”

“The Florida situation has caused the price to be better than it has for the past five years,” said Craig Casca, CEO and director of sales for Red Blossom Sales Inc., Salinas, Calif.

“The market has been awesome,” he said. “Also, the normal Christmas/New Year’s Eve week glut was not a factor because Florida had nothing this year during that time period.” 

But the spike in business for Southern California growers appeared to be ending by the first week of February.

“We just had a beautiful weekend with 80-degree weather,” Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover, said Feb. 3.

He said he expects the good weather to continue.

“I think the worst has certainly passed us — from a calendar standpoint,” he said. “February and March are usually pretty good here.”

As of early February, Florida’s strawberry production was down about 40%, Campbell said, and he estimated that the season would end up with a 20% to 30% drop compared with last year — “unless we have gangbuster production.”