Strawberries steam ahead into September

08/02/2012 07:34:00 PM
Mike Hornick

SALINAS, Calif. — California’s summer harvests and plantings of strawberries point to stronger fall volume than last year’s crop.

Fresh shipments surpassed 122 million trays through mid-July, up 11%. Acreage is up slightly, but the real difference was weather, said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

Farm workers harvest strawberries for California Giant Berry FarmsMike HornickFarm workers harvest strawberries for California Giant Berry Farms July 31 at Skillicorn Ranch near Watsonville, Calif.The crop soaked up steady doses of sunshine through summer, something that can’t be counted upon along the fog-prone Central Coast.

Weekly volume is expected to run from 4 million to 5 million trays of fresh strawberries through August, beginning its seasonal dip in September to 3.5 million to 4 million.

That’s a lot of strawberries.

“It’s still a significant portion of the California crop that comes during August, September and early October,” said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

While volume is off its summer peak, he said, fall strawberries make up for that in taste.

“Often it’s one of the times when quality and flavor are the best,” Munger said. “The plants are a little stressed. Whenever you see a bit of stress on the plant, you also see an improvement in the sugars, so the eatability of the berry goes up significantly.”

“Last year we had so much fog and drizzle all summer that it really affected the fall fruit,” Cindy Jewell, director of marketing at Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms, said July 25. “Thankfully, conditions have not been like that. With all the extra sunshine we’re getting really good quality and size.”

Summer plantings in Ventura County will pick up the slack for Salinas and Watsonville by late September or early October.

“That will give us a nice bump through the late fall and early winter months,” O’Donnell said. “Santa Maria will also contribute to that bump.”

“Some of the plantings in Oxnard and Irvine will bring us fruit in November and December,” said Robert Verloop, executive vice president of marketing at Naturipe Farms LLC.

But the real fall push starts earlier, Verloop said, with back-to-school marketing.

“We’ve got a lot of promotions hitting in August,” he said. “We continue to drive for big displays and good pricing. Parents seem to come back to portable, easy to prepare or ready to eat. It’s almost like the indulgences of summer are over and they’re returning to healthy products. It’s always a time to look forward to in the produce department.”

Naturipe Farms has tasted double-digit sales growth for berries in both retail and foodservice this year, Verloop said.

“When we had all crops at their peaks, we still ran short on occasion because of the strong demand that was out there,” he said.

“We’re getting more requests from customers not to pick fruit early, or not to run ads at the same time as last year,” Verloop said. “‘Do it when it’s best for the fruit,’ they’re saying. The whole issue of getting optimum flavor is becoming a bigger driver in decisions made by buyers. It’s gratifying to see that for the consumers.”

Andrew & Williamson reported significant growth in its organic strawberry program.

“For the summer we were up about 20%, and in our winter season we almost doubled our organic strawberry volume,” Munger said. “That trend will continue as we grow the program in the next season.”

After Oxnard, Andrew & Williamson will return to Baja in December. For winter, California Giant will source in Mexico and Florida.



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