California growers say retailers can expect promotable volumes of strawberries for Easter.
But with the holiday falling on April 24 — nearly three weeks later than last year — some are giving demand an early nudge.
“Typically we don’t have to create demand early,” said Jim Roberts, vice president of sales at Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms. “Easter does that for us just as we’re starting to ramp up production in California. With a late holiday, we’re getting out to our retail trade earlier and doing a lot of smaller ads for 2-, 3- and 4-pound sizes.”
In mid-March most of the buying was happening in Oxnard, Calif., said Russ Widerburg, sales manager at Boskovich Farms there. Santa Maria was expected to pick up momentum two to three weeks later, with Watsonville and Salinas to follow.
“With Florida petering out a bit and Mexico slowing down, it helped demand on our fruit in the East,” Widerburg said. “We have a two-month gap between Valentines (Day) and the Easter pull, but quality and demand on berries was steady and retailers have had promotions to move the fruit.”
Oxnard traditionally peaks in late March through April. Weather changes are one wildcard as Easter approaches.
“Most growers will be confident about putting some good promotional pricing out there for Easter, if we can stay away from rain or heat spells,” Widerburg said. “But in the past they’ve been reluctant to give an $8-10 price when it’s $12-14 on the open market.”
Prices for 8-pound flats out of Oxnard were mostly $10 on March 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. That was about $1-2 higher than Florida. Year-ago Oxnard prices were $12. The Florida and Mexico deals are expected to be over by Easter.
“Overall, supply is up,” said Tom Am Rhein, vice president of Salinas-based Naturipe Berry Growers. “There will be plenty of fruit for Easter, but how much depends on what happens in Santa Maria. That’s the one district that got hurt a bit with hail and everything. It depends on how fast they come back.”
California Giant Berry Farms, Watsonville, says growth is on track.
“We’re increasing 10% to 20% each week,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing. “Once temperatures reach the 50s at night, by the end of March, we’ll really be picking up the volume in the southern districts. We won’t need to do much promoting. By then consumers are automatically looking.”
Alan Tagami, sales manager at Seven Seas Berry Sales, Watsonville, said mid-March volume was slightly below expectations.
“Our numbers are behind last year by about a week, but we’ll see increases in the next couple weeks,” he said. “We’re experiencing very good markets. Our East Coast customers are moving away from the Florida and Mexico deals and concentrating on California.”
Edward Ortega, a partner in Beach Street Farms, Watsonville, said prices are likely to be sufficient for growers.
“We expect a decent market, considering the freezer market is really hot,” he said. “They’re in need of a lot of supply. The usage of frozen strawberries is really up, and that industry is at its lowest point in inventory for quite some time. Coupled with a good supply of fresh, we expect a good market.”
Oxnard could still be picking fresh through June if quality remains high, Widerburg said. If not, the freezer market is the alternative for June fruit.