SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Bigger yields and extended production make California strawberry growing more profitable but more expensive too.
“Santa Maria has really changed,” said Paul Allen, owner of Main Street Pr.
“It’s the varieties. With day-neutrals like albion, san andreas and monterey, we can pick fresh from February to the end of December.”
Before some of those university varieties came out a few years ago, short-day strawberries such as camarosa were picked fresh for spring and the freezer market in summer.
At the end of August, Main Street Produce would put the disc to the ground and that was the end of it.
“The day-neutral varieties don’t produce heavy in spring, they produce steady all year,” Allen said.
“You clean and cut the plants, and they continue to put out fruit all year. If you just picked until the end of summer, you wouldn’t have enough. It costs more to farm, but at the end you should have enough units to cover your costs.”
But the cost-benefit calculation doesn’t work for everyone.
“There seem to be fewer small-acreage growers,” Allen said.
“It’s become very expensive to grow strawberries so some don’t want to invest, and it does cost more to grow these varieties.”
Removing the first set of blooms to produce a stronger plant later on, hand care, fertilizers and sprays follow albion’s 16-month Santa Maria cycle from planting to discing.
Whether it’s the high maintenance on newer varieties, the cost of fumigation or other factors, California grower-shippers are thinking twice about strawberries.
“The deal is so important to the retailers, but there’s not a lot of growers jumping into strawberries,” said Atomic Torosian, partner in Fresno, Calif.-based Crown Jewels Produce Co.
“It’s not always a home run for them.
“We still move strawberries, but they’re not our grower strawberries like before. We’re not a big player anymore. We’re segueing more toward cherries and blueberries, and moving upward in the Mexican vegetable business.”
While Main Street Produce finds success with albion and san andreas, Naturipe Farms LLC is turning increasingly to proprietary varieties south of Watsonville and Salinas.
“In Santa Maria we are mostly proprietary now, which is really a big shift for us,” said Vinnie Lopes, Salinas-based vice president of sales for Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms.
“Just a few years ago we relied on albion almost exclusively. We’ve found a niche in our southern districts for a particular variety that’s given us distinct advantages with shipping, quality and flavor.”
Nevertheless, university varieties remain vital to Naturipe in the north, where they dominate plantings.
“The albion is the primary variety that’s helped set the tone for the whole category,” Lopes said.
“It’s been one of the driving forces in making the berry category No. 1 since 2008.”