An exceptionally mild early winter in California along with sluggish production out of Florida in January means good returns for Southern California strawberry grower-shippers as the season kicks off.

Temperatures into the mid-80s helped bring on ample volume in the region.

The Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission reported that harvested volume for Southern California as of Feb. 8 was about 5.7 million cases, compared with about 3.8 million cases at the same time in 2013.

The 1.1 million trays shipped the week ending Feb. 8 exceeded the 1 million-tray projection.

On Feb. 11, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported an f.o.b. price of mostly $14 for trays of eight 1-pound clamshells out of the Oxnard growing district. Last year on the same date, the price was $12.

Most agreed that it would be hard to do worse than last year as far as markets are concerned.

“At least for this district, (2013) was a terrible year,” said strawberry salesman Doug Lowthorp, salesman for Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif.

That’s because California, Florida and Mexico all had heavy production last winter.

“Everything came out at once,” Lowthorp said. “There was way too much (product) as an industry.”

This year, thanks to cold weather in Florida and, for a time, storms in central Mexico, the market was outstanding for Southern California growers.

On Feb. 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported an f.o.b. price of $16 for a tray of eight 1-pound clamshells out of the Oxnard growing district. Last year on the same date, the price was $12.

“The California crop is coming along really good right now,” Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Naturipe Berry Growers Inc., Salinas, Calif., said in late January. “We’re looking at record early volume if the weather holds.”

The Baja California and Oxnard growing areas have similar climatic conditions, said Chad Dvorak, director of sales for the berry division of San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

“They’re both excellent right now,” he said Feb. 4. “Size is outstanding.”

“Quality out of central Mexico has been quite good as well,” he said, though the berries, which are a different variety and grown at a higher elevation than those from the other areas, were slightly smaller.

Watsonville, Calif.-based California Giant Inc. started harvesting in Southern California right after Christmas, as usual, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing.

“Quality is great,” she said, as were size and taste.

She expects strawberries to be available for Valentine’s Day.

“We just don’t know how many or where from,” she said.

The company sources from California, Mexico and Florida in February.

She also was optimistic about Easter, April 20.

“We should have a lot of berries for Easter,” she said.

The late date for Easter means a shorter window between Easter and Mother’s Day, May 11, and Memorial Day, May 26, providing an opportunity to build up marketing momentum all month long, Jewell said.

Watsonville-based CBS Farms started harvesting the third week in December, about two weeks earlier than usual because of the good weather, said Charlie Staka, director of sales.

“Quality has been excellent so far,” he said in late January, and berry size was good.

The company traditionally picks out of Southern California until Mother’s Day, and then moves north to the Watsonville area.

“SoCal quality has been awesome this winter,” added Michelle Deleissegues, marketing director for Red Blossom Sales Inc., Salinas.

Although some varieties start out slow, production should be smooth and steady “with outstanding fruit quality,” she said.

Andrew & Williamson assures that it will have adequate supplies during the winter by sourcing from several growing areas.

“November through April is the most challenging months of the year for weather,” said John King, vice president of sales. So the company has a “geographic diversity” program, growing strawberries in Oxnard, Baja California and central Mexico.

“We’re leveraged in three different regions, so if there’s a rain event or cold event we’ve got other options available to make sure we’ve got that supply.”