Several Southern California grower-shippers have increased their acreage of organic strawberries this season but still, overall organic acreage for the Oxnard, Santa Maria and Orange County/San Diego districts will be down slightly.

Oxnard has 316 acres this year, down from 329 last year. Santa Maria has 223 acres, down from 242. And Orange County has 71 acres, up from 59 last year.

CBS Farms, Watsonville, Calif., added an organic strawberry deal in Oxnard in December, said Charlie Staka, director of sales.

The company already had an organic program in Watsonville that continues to grow, he said.

Increased demand requires the company to offer organic product year-round, he said.

Not every supermarket offers organic strawberries, but the number that do increases every year.

Staka estimates that about 30% of the firm’s retail customers have an organic section.

Watsonville-based California Giant Inc. will increase its organic acreage by 20% this season, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing.

There will be a slight increase in Oxnard, and the company is transitioning some acreage to organic in the Santa Maria district.

The volume of organic product Irvine, Calif.-based Orange County Produce LLC offers depends on how much organic land is available, says partner Matt Kawamura.

The firm was able to bump up its organic deal to 85 acres this season, he said. The acreage had been decreasing.

JBJ Distributing Inc./Veg-Land Inc., Fullerton, Calif., also sells organic strawberries from Orange County Produce.

“It seems like every year, more and more people want organic,” Kawamura said.

Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, raises organic berries in most of the company’s growing areas, including Southern California, said Frances Dillard, director of marketing.

“It represents a significant contribution to overall production volumes,” she said.

Driscoll’s organic berries have seen an upsweep in popularity as more and more consumers focus on healthful diets, she added.

“The response to organic has been still relatively strong,” said Backus Nahas, son of Jim Nahas, owner of Success Valley Produce LLC, Oxnard.

While organic acreage has been fairly steady in the Oxnard district, Nahas said the number of companies growing organic strawberries has been on the rise.

“It just seems to be spread out among more people,” he said, estimating that seven or eight growers in the area now offer organic strawberries compared with two or three in the past.

This year, about 15% of the firm’s strawberries will be organic.

Naturipe started growing organic strawberries five years ago in Northern California, said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Salinas-based Naturipe Berry Growers Inc.

The company launched a program in Oxnard two or three years ago.

“There’s a fantastic market for organic strawberries,” he said.

Naturipe always could use more organic berries, Moriyama said, but there are land limitations.

Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, tried organic strawberries but found that the company does not have a ranch that is conducive to organics, said salesman Doug Lowthorp.

It’s likely that the company will get back into them at some point, he said.

“The demand is always there,” he said, but a grower must take into account the cost to grow and yields per acre.

“Growing anything organically adds substantially to the cost,” he said.

Growers charge a premium for organic strawberries because they involve a lot more labor and other inputs than conventional fruit, Staka said.

F.o.b. prices for organic strawberries hit $30 per tray early this season, Moriyama said.

“Shoppers are willing to pay for it.”

Naturipe has doubled its organic acreage over the years, he said, yet demand remains good.

“There always will be a price difference,” Jewell said.

Organic prices fall more in line with conventional during peak season, however, when there’s a lot of fruit in the marketplace, she said.