Rain slows progress of strawberry crop

02/12/2010 01:13:00 PM
Tom Burfield

Southern California strawberry grower-shippers who had to contend with a week’s worth of rain in late January were facing more of the same in early February.

Some appeared prepared to write off Valentine’s Day promotions and concentrate on postholiday sales instead.

Many fields in Oxnard and Orange County received 6 inches or more of rain during the week of Jan. 18, and forecasters were calling for more precipitation late in the week of Feb. 1 into Super Bowl weekend.

Southern California growers are accustomed to dealing with a half inch or three-quarters of an inch of rain, said Carl Lindgren, general manager of Placentia, Calif.-based Sunrise Growers Inc.

“But that rain was unprecedented,” he said.

Good markets were one bright spot in the otherwise dreary forecast.

On Feb. 8, trays of eight 1-pound clamshell containers were mostly $20, compared to $12.90 a year ago, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

Those prices were not expected to hold for long, once California shipments return to normal and growers in Florida fully recover from the recent freezes in that state.

“After Valentine’s Day, you would think the (market) trend would be down,” said David Cook, sales manager at Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard.

The state’s growers produced 214,726 trays of strawberries the week ending Jan. 30, down from 376,902 trays the week ending Jan. 23 and down significantly from the 976,070 trays produced the week ending Jan. 16, before the rains hit, according to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

In 2009, growers produced 640,788 trays the week ending Jan. 30.

Year-to-date figures as of Jan. 30 showed 2,354,358 trays produced this year, compared to 3,291,051 trays in 2009.

Pickers were returning to the fields, many of which still were soggy, late in the week of Jan. 25 trying to scoop up enough berries for Valentine’s Day shipments.

“We’re still in the process of recovering,” Russ Widerburg, sales manager at Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, said Jan. 28. “This week’s kind of a down week.”

Workers stripped off the damaged berries, and plants were going through the regrowth cycle in preparation for the start of the Valentine’s Day pull the week of Feb. 1, he said.

Production was better than it had been the preceding weeks, he said, “but nowhere close to where we were before the rain came.”

Rainfall also affected the organic deal, said Jim Nahas, owner of Success Valley Produce LLC, Oxnard.

“It’s been pretty sparse the last two weeks,” he said Jan. 28.

The company has 450 acres of conventional berries and 40 acres of organic product.

Growers can apply fungicides to conventional plants to combat the effects of the rain, he said. But the materials used on organic plants were not as effective as conventional remedies.

Rain in Orange County was accompanied by high winds and scattered hail, said Matt Kawamura, partner in Orange County Produce LLC, Irvine.

“It was pretty bad,” he said. “We definitely haven’t seen that much rain in over 10 years.”

Although pickers already were back in the fields, Kawamura said it could take some plants up to three weeks to recover.

The rain pushed back the start of picking in the Santa Maria district a bit.

Corona Marketing expected to start in a small way the first week of February, but president Jose Corona said heavy picking will not get under way until the third week of the month.

Significant volume should be available the first week of March.

Although rain did not cause much damage to fields in Baja California, two major bridges were wiped out, blocking the only road connecting the San Quintin growing area to the U.S. and temporarily preventing product from shipping, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

The problem was resolved by Jan. 28, however, and shipments were back to normal.

Despite the bad weather, no one expected the plants to suffer permanent damage, and in some ways, the rain was a good thing for drought-stricken Southern California.

“California needs the rain,” Lindgren said.

“The rain only messes up the immediate red (strawberries),” Cook said. “It doesn’t really hurt the plant.”

The rain actually leeches impurities out of the soil and helps the plants in the long run, said Paul Cracknell, vice president and general manager for the southern region for Watsonville-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates.

When it rains, some fruit has to be thrown out or sent to the juice market, Widerburg said.
But product that is packed is good quality.

“This is a very early event,” Nahas added. “We still have ample time to have a good season.”



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