Rain delays harvest, but growers expect good quality berries

05/04/2012 12:39:00 PM
Susie Cable

Following a bout with nasty spring storms, berry crops were looking good in late April, marketers said.

“It’s been a wild ride in California,” said Doug Perkins, managing director, HBF International LLC, McMinnville, Ore. “We have seen hail, cold temperatures, rain and very warm temperatures.”

Cindy Jewell, marketing director, California Giant Berry Farms, Watsonville, Calif., said on April 25 that it was raining and more wet weather was forecast.

The rain temporarily slowed harvesting, but marketers expect good quality berries and enough supplies for Mother’s Day retail promotions.

Michelle Deleissegues, marketing director for Red Blossom Farms, Los Olivos, Calif., said all strawberry districts in California — Oxnard, Santa Maria and Salinas — received rain during the last week of April, which slowed harvest. The sun was shining on April 27, though, and Deleissegues said she expected the first week of May to be a good week.

In late April, Oxnard strawberry production was peaking and fruit quality was excellent, Deleissegues said.

Santa Maria production was increasing and expected to peak beginning May 1, and Salinas strawberry crops were just getting started and quality looked good, she said on April 27.

Red Blossom’s strawberry crops were hit by rainstorms and hail in April, Deleissegues said. In mid-April, the company was cleaning up crops by picking the damaged berries.

Generally, when berry crops get too much rain, the berries, not the plants, are damaged. The damaged berries have to be picked, which leads to a gap in supply, Jewell said.

“It doesn’t affect long-term production or later berries,” she said. “It’s warming up in Southern California, and the plants and fruit will rebound quickly.”

Jewell said California Giant expects a good overall season. Each growing region has its own peak in production, but generally California strawberries peak from about May through June, she said.

Deleissegues also said she’s optimistic about the season despite unpredictable weather this spring. She said she expects California strawberry volume to be up and demand to be strong.

Berry marketers declined to discuss their predictions for this season’s pricing, but prices in late April were slightly higher than at the same time last year.

On May 2, flats of eight 1-pound lidded containers of large strawberries from Santa Maria, Calif., were priced at $8-10 at the Los Angeles terminal market, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. Prices were occasionally higher, the USDA reported.

A year ago, the USDA reported flats of eight 1-pound lidded containers of large strawberries from Santa Maria were pricing at mostly $8 in Los Angeles.

Blueberry prices, however, were lower than they were a year earlier.

On May 2, with a steady market, flats of 12 4.4-ounce lidded cups of large blueberries from California were priced at $19-22 at the Los Angeles terminal market.

A year earlier, the same packs were priced at $22-24.

The overall blueberry crop in California looked good, Perkins said in late April.

The rains came at a time when they helped irrigate the plants, and the hail missed HBF’s growers’ fields, he said. The cool weather didn’t cause any damage, and some warmer weather in late April helped advance the crop.

“Overall, we have been lucky and it looks like a high quality crop,” he said.

Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co.’s blueberry crops in Delano, Calif., were expected to be ready for harvest by early May, said Julia Inestroza, marketing director.

“We’ve had some challenging weather, but we’ve overcome it all,” she said. “There have been some cold mornings, but with the use of helicopters and water we averted a potentially devastating freeze and had essentially no damage.”

In response to demand, Gourmet Trading expects to market an increased volume of blueberries this season, Inestroza said.

In April, HBF was marketing California- and Mexico-grown blueberries from its partner, Hurst’s Berry Farm Inc., McMinnville, Perkins said.

The heaviest part of the California blueberry crop is in the San Joaquin Valley, he said.

Production in the southern part of the valley had just begun in about mid-April, and Perkins said promotable volumes should be available from about May 14 through mid-June.

He said he expects the earliest Oregon blueberries to be harvested in late June and Canada blueberries to be ready in mid-July.

In April, Brooks, Ore.-based Curry & Co. Inc., was harvesting limited volumes of blueberries in the Santa Maria region, said Matt Curry, president.

The company expected to begin harvesting around May 5 in the Reedley, Calif., and Kingsburg, Calif., region, which is its primary production area.

Peak volumes are expected in early May.

Blueberry crop quality was good in April and Curry & Co. was anticipating a good volume, Curry said.

“Early indications are showing excellent fruit quality and sizing,” he said.

Curry & Co.’s California blueberry program might be as much as 30% larger this year because more acreage is coming into production, Curry said.

Curry & Co. sources most of its berries from California and Oregon. California crops are expected to be in production into June. Oregon crops should be producing from June into October, Curry said.

The company also sources berries from Washington and British Columbia.

Blueberry crops in the Pacific Northwest have had a good number of chill hours this spring, Curry said.

The bud sets looked good in April. Spring was slow to come this year, though, and Curry said the harvest start date could be in early July rather than the more typical late June.

“In the Northwest, we had a mild winter, but a cooler-than-usual spring is likely pushing our start date back a week or so,” he said.

A warm front still could move through and speed crop development.

The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, will market Ocean Spray-brand blueberries from British Columbia, said Nolan Quinn, berry category director.

In late April, Quinn said the crop looked like it might be running a week later than usual. Production might be up in the region, he said, but he was not sure how much of an increase there would be.

Red Blossom supplements its strawberry program with blueberries and blackberries. In April, it was marketing “big beautiful blueberries” from Oxnard, Calif., Deleissegues said.

She expected those to be shipping through May.

The company’s blueberries are grown under cover by a specialty grower.

Oppenheimer also will market summer blueberries from North Carolina and New Jersey under the Ocean Spray label.

Quinn said he’s optimistic that North Carolina’s production will be up slightly from last year’s. He expects a good crop with harvest expected to begin in early May — about a week to 10 days early. Temperatures in mid-April were higher than normal, Quinn said.

“It (warm weather) triggers plants, they think it’s time to go,” he said.

Oppenheimer expects a seamless transition from North Carolina to New Jersey for blueberry production.

Quinn said in April that he didn’t have much information on the New Jersey crop because it was too early in the season. Harvest there could start in mid-June, while North Carolina production is expected to continue into early July.

Red Blossom’s Mexican blackberry supply was steady in April and was expected to last until mid-June.

Blackberry prices in late April were similar to last year’s. The USDA reported on May 2 that flats of 12 6-ounce lidded cups of large blackberries from Mexico were priced at mostly $14-16 at the Los Angeles terminal market. One label was priced as high as $22, the USDA reported. A year earlier, prices for the same packs were essentially the same in Los Angeles.

Miami-based Pure Fresh LLC’s Mexico berry season runs through May.

In late July, its Guatemala blackberry season will get underway, said Roberto Castaneda Jr., vice president. 
Guatemala-based Planesa S.A., Pure Fresh’s growing operation, handles crops in Guatemala and Mexico. Its largest crop is blackberries, but it is expanding its other berry deals, Castaneda said.

HBF expects to pack blackberries from Mexico through May, Perkins said. Its Oregon blackberry program should begin in late June and continue into September. HBF also plans to market raspberries from Mexico through early June.

Curry & Co.’s blackberry crop near Reedley was progressing well in April. Curry said he expects harvest to begin there in mid-May.

Production is expected to be about 10% more this year, which will allow Curry & Co. to expand its marketing area.

In addition to its California supply, Curry & Co. will market blackberries from Oregon. The crop’s canes were healthy in April, and it’s expected to be in production by early July, Curry said.

The program is still “modest” in size, he said, but is growing The crop might be as much as 25% larger, primarily due to increases in late-season varieties.



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