SALINAS, Calif. — Demand for California strawberries hits its spring peak with the April 8 arrival of Easter. But supply, while sufficient, is just getting started.
Promotions will be high on grower-shippers’ wish lists.
“We’ve got a strong momentum and market all the way through the holiday,” Doug Lowthorp, salesman for Oxnard-based Deardorff Family Farms, said March 1.
“After Easter, it gets difficult. Then you’ve got five long weeks until Mother’s Day. Southern California will be coming on very strong at that point and you’ll need to do a lot of promoting to keep moving the fruit.”
Michelle Deleissegues, director of marketing for Red Blossom Farms, Los Olivos, wasn’t concerned.
“Supply levels will climb after Easter and Mother’s Day, but that is always peak strawberry season with consumers ready to really escalate their berry purchases,” she said.
Russ Widerburg, sales manager for Oxnard-based Boskovich Farms, said the runup to Easter went better than expected.
“Usually there’s a drop-off post-Valentine’s Day,” he said.
“The market’s held good at $12-14 on the (flats of eight) 1-pound clamshells. It’s a pleasant surprise.”
California had a mild winter. Temperatures were low enough to keep supply in check, but it took no knockout punch from freeze or flood. Yield per acre is up 10% over last year, Widerburg said. Together with solid East Coast demand and tapering Florida supplies, that created a real opportunity for the state’s grower-shippers.
“Strawberries are the only shining light for us and our competition, considering how bad vegetable markets are,” Lowthorp said.
“Celery and leaf lettuces are down to just packing costs.”
Easter supply is coming largely from Oxnard, but Santa Maria, Orange County and Coachella Valley are also participating, said Vinnie Lopes, Salinas-based vice president of sales for Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.
In Watsonville and Salinas, harvesting starts anywhere from the last week of March to the second week of April, depending on which grower you ask. They have mixed feelings about the comparatively dry winter.
“Without rain it could be a good yield, or it could stunt your production a little,” said Charlie Staka, director of sales for Watsonville-based CBS Farms, which represents Beach Street Farms and Colleen Strawberries.
“Weather needs to do something for a market to take hold.”
In late February, CBS Farms’ central Mexico deal was approaching its end.
“We’re ahead of the game, but strawberries still aren’t sure whether it’s winter or spring,” Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms, said as March began.
“We may experience starts and stops on the Central Coast because we’re not sure what weather patterns to expect.
“Warmth brings on the crop quickly, but if rains decide to come and stick around, it’ll push the whole thing back. Still it’s better to have rain. Farmers have had to run sprinklers and irrigate.”
Salinas and Watsonville will peak in June, Red Blossom’s Deleissegues said.
Santa Maria — between Oxnard and Salinas — saw some early production.
“Last year at this time we had about 30 inches of rain — it’s below about 6 inches now,” said Paul Allen, owner of Santa Maria-based Main Street Produce.
“We had good quality but the plants were stressed and we didn’t get the production. They look much better now, and day temperatures are perfect for an early crop.”
By February, Main Street Produce had already done some picking of san andreas variety strawberries on Santa Maria’s east side, farther from the ocean. Closer to the coast, picking still had to wait a few weeks.
“We’d like to see Santa Maria peak in May,” Naturipe’s Lopes said.
“The past few years it was driven a little later by cold, but this year we’re in line.”
For the Easter market, Naturipe Farms anticipated contributions from beyond California.
“Florida had some hiccups a few weeks ago, but it will stay in until Easter,” Lopes said March 6.
“The crop is cleaned up now and the quality is good. We expect to see product out of Mexico as well. Supplies are shaping up pretty well everywhere.”