Between Easter’s early arrival on March 27, cutbacks in acreage and cool, wet El Niño weather, buyers can expect smaller holiday strawberry volumes out of Southern California than in 2015.
“We’re not having the same season as last year,” Charlie Staka, sales director for Watsonville, Calif.-based CBS Farms, said Jan. 29. “Weather has suppressed volume. Last year we came on very early and just kept ramping up. This year is a more normal type of production.”
Through Jan. 30, Southern California shipped 1.1 million trays, down from 2.9 million a year ago, according to the California Strawberry Commission. Flats of eight 1-pound containers shipped from Oxnard for $22-24 on Feb. 3, up from $14-16 a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Fall-planted acres, which produce now and in the spring, are down 1,626 in Oxnard, Orange County and San Diego. A bit farther north, Santa Maria is down 1,219, a commission survey found.
Low prices last year are one reason for the reductions, Staka said. Other growers cited a range of causes, including competition from Mexico and Florida, rising regulatory costs and the search for a better short-day variety for Southern California.
“Easter complicates the situation,” said Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms. “March 27 is fairly early for Santa Maria. If we continue to get wet weather, volume could be pushed back a little and there may not be as ample supplies as people are used to getting for Easter.”
The holiday market will also depend on whether March goes out like a lion or a lamb where most consumers live.
“When Easter is later, you have a better chance of it actually feeling like spring if you’re in New York, New Jersey or Ohio,” Jewell said. “It’s always nice to be able to start thinking about opening your curtains and windows and letting a little spring in. That’s what we try to capitalize on.”
Matt Kawamura, partner in Irvine, Calif.-based Orange County Produce LLC, saw good signs for growers in the El Niño weather conditions.
“We’re feeling very optimistic because it’s the first time we’ve had winter in about five years,” he said. “These plants are supposed to get chill. When it was 80 degrees during December, January and February, the plants cycled differently and everybody came in at the same time. The chill gives us a window before Santa Maria and Watsonville.”
“This year everybody is behind,” he said. “We’re at least a month late, which is good. Supply is low now and demand exceeds it.”
Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Berry Growers, said Oxnard volumes typically peak in late March and April.
Southern California’s market niche appears more secure than it did in past El Niño’s.
“The last two or three years we had an El Niño, we also had above normal temperatures and Santa Maria came at the same time as Oxnard,” Moriyama said. “This year it looks more normal. A year ago, Santa Maria was already picking in the middle of January. Now Santa Maria will probably start in mid-February. They’ll get some bigger numbers in mid-March and probably hit their peak numbers end of April, first of May, which is more normal.”
“That should help the marketing, because you won’t have these overlapping districts,” he said.
“Our peak in Orange County could be toward the end of March or anytime in April,” Kawamura said. “And in Oxnard it’s usually in April.”