Growers hope for post-Valentine’s demand surge

02/11/2011 03:07:56 PM
Tom Burfield

Southern California strawberry grower-shippers were playing catch-up in early February, after cold, wet weather in December, coupled with late arrivals of strawberry plants from the nurseries, put growers about two weeks behind.

The Oxnard area received 7.2 inches of rain in December, compared with a normal 2.1 inches. Average temperatures were about 10 degrees below normal.

Conditions improved in January as clouds gave way to sunshine, but temperatures in early February remained below normal. Forecasters, however, predicted they could reach the low 70s for at least couple of days during the week before Valentine’s Day.

As of Feb. 5, the state’s growers had shipped about 2.4 million trays this season — down from about 3.2 million trays at the same time last year, the California Strawberry Commission reported.

On Feb. 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed f.o.b. prices of eight 1-pound containers and four 2-pound containers of medium to large berries as $16-18. At the same time in 2010, f.o.b.s were mostly $20.

“Everybody got started planting here a little bit late,” said Russ Widerburg, sales manager for Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif.

Growers expected good demand for Valentine’s Day from West Coast buyers, but demand was down in the East and Midwest because of adverse weather conditions the first week of February.

After the slow start, growers were eager to put strawberries back on the minds of buyers and consumers, said Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.

“The Southern California production window kicks off the berry promotion season, so it’s important for us to get this one under way so we can continue to capitalize on the growth we’ve seen on the berry category,” Roberts said.

Despite the rainy December, Douglas Ronan, vice president of marketing for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, did not expect a repeat of last year’s “unprecedented weather events” — a series of storms that significantly slowed spring production.

“Our forecast would suggest that those disruptive weather conditions are not expected to have as much of an impact this year as they did last year,” he said.

December’s rain clouds did come with a silver lining.

“Because of the rain, the plants look awesome,” said Craig Casca, vice president and director of sales for Red Blossom Farms, Santa Ynez, Calif.

“Everything (in Oxnard) is looking good.”

The rain did damage some early fruit, however.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit less volume than normal for Valentine’s Day,” he said, though he expected supplies to be “adequate.”

Growers for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, which grows in Mexico and California, also were seeing nice plants, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.

The plants were healthier because the cool weather provided plenty of time for them to establish their roots, he said.

“If we start with healthier plants, we will have healthier plants throughout the season,” he said.

The Orange County growing area, about 100 miles southeast of Oxnard, also experienced lower-than-usual temperatures, said Matt Kawamura, partner in Orange County Produce Inc. LLC, Irvine, Calif.

Volume was down and growers were two to three weeks later than usual because of the weather and because many switched away from the short-day varieties like the ventana and camarosa to day-neutral varieties like the san andreas and albion, he said.

In Santa Maria, about 100 miles north of Oxnard, Corona Marketing Co. picked its first strawberries the second week of January, a little earlier than usual, said president Jose Corona.

The berries were looking good, he said Feb. 4, and volume should gradually increase, with full production expected by around March 18.



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