Tom BurfieldA worker picks some proprietary 1975 berries in grower Gary Nakamura’s Oxnard, Calif., field for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla. Naturipe’s Vinnie Lopes, regional vice president of sales, says ample promotional opportunities will exist from Valentine’s Day through the end of the season. Unusually cool weather turned into ideal growing conditions as the Southern California strawberry season kicked off for most growers in December and January.
As of Feb. 4, Southern California growers had shipped 3.1 million trays of strawberries, more than doubling the 1.5 million trays shipped at the same time last year when the region was deluged by rain, according to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.
In all, Southern California growers produced 48.1 million trays of strawberries in 2011, according to the commission. Projected volume for 2012 is 46.7 million trays for the region and about 176 million trays statewide.
F.o.b. prices for trays of eight 1-pound containers of medium-large berries were mostly $12 on Feb. 6. A year earlier, they were $16-18, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In time for Valentine’s Day
Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc. was reporting steady volume in early February after a slightly later start than usual because of cool weather in December and early January, said Dan Crowley, sales manager.
By Feb. 1, growing conditions were “ideal,” he said. “This will push us into some pretty good numbers in the very near future.”
Valentine’s Day promotions started the first weekend of February.
“We should have adequate supplies, not an overabundance of fruit out of the Oxnard area for Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14),” Crowley said.
The industry should hit the million-tray-per week mark soon, said Vinnie Lopes, regional vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.
“The Southern California crop is coming into full swing,” Lopes said, adding that abundant promotional opportunities should exist from the pre-Valentine’s Day period through the end of the season.
Good quality, size
Watsonville-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. was enjoying “a very promising start” to its Oxnard season, said Valerie Lott, director of strawberry business management.
“Conditions so far have been very conducive to great quality and size, with mild temperatures and dry early conditions,” she said.
The company’s Oxnard program will increase year over year because of additional acreage and more productive ranches, Lott said.
The season also looked promising for Dole’s Watsonville-based berry operation in all of its Southern California growing areas — Oxnard, Oceanside and Coachella — said Norman Shiffman, general manager.
“The stands look good, the plants look very good and there were no problems this year with the supply of plants from the nursery, as there has been in the past,” Shiffman said.
Boskovich Farms Inc. in Oxnard was picking four to five times a week by late January, said Russ Widerburg, sales manager.
The company was ahead of last year volume-wise because of last season’s rain setbacks and was packing 15- to 18-count packages of berries of “very nice size and quality.”
Similarly, David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard said “Everything looks good,” in early February.
Cook said he was looking forward to shipping a lot of stems for Valentine’s Day.
“The only thing that throws a monkey wrench in the deal is rain sometimes,” he said. “If you get a lot of rain, your plans can go out the window.”
Showers were falling on the area Feb. 7, but no major disruptions were expected.
As of early February, rainfall was only about one-half of normal in the Oxnard area.
In Orange County, Orange County Produce LLC, Irvine, Calif., started picking in December and was on schedule if not ahead of schedule by early February, said partner Matt Kawamura.
Quality was “really nice so far,” he said, and volume was up slightly.
San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, which sources some of its berries from Baja California and Central Mexico, was running a couple of weeks behind because of cool, dry weather, said John King, vice president of sales.
The delayed production, however, should result in strong plants and “big gorgeous berries.”
“The future is looking very bright as far as strawberry quality,” added Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.
San Diego-based Expo Fresh LLC got its start in Baja California in mid-November, earlier than usual because of good growing conditions, said Bob Schachtel, sales manager.
In Santa Maria, frost threw a curveball at Jose Corona, president of Corona Marketing Co.
Corona planned to start picking small pallet quantities in late January, but two consecutive nights with temperatures in the 20s sparked a setback.
“We had a little bit of bloom on the crop, too, so it’s basically going to set us back three weeks,” he said.