A mild winter has the California strawberry deal running early, with shipments to date double what they were at the same time in 2017.
Growers had shipped 7.8 million trays through March 3, up from 3.7 million trays through March 4 last year, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
“Up until the rains last week, we were probably tracking about three weeks ahead in terms of the advancement of production through all of our districts,” said Chris Christian, senior vice president of the commission. “We actually have volume being shipped out of all of our districts.”
She expected rain would slow movement a bit but that fields would be cleaned up and production back in gear later in the week of March 5.
“I would say there’s plenty of volume going to be available for promotion, particularly the second half of March in advance of the Easter holiday (April 1),” Christian said. “Our peak season runs from the middle of March all the way through the summer, so retailers should be planning now for also their ads in May for Mother’s Day and beyond Mother’s Day all the way through June and July to take advantage of spring and summer holidays and demand.”
Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for Watsonville, Calif.-based California Giant Berry Farms, said quality so far has been excellent.
“This pattern of cooler temperatures does help in both Oxnard and Santa Maria to keep plants strong and healthy, producing consistent amounts of fruit,” Jewell said March 5. “We are expecting some additional light showers on and off over the next 10-12 days in some areas, so harvesting will slow a bit as fields are cleaned up in between.
“As the days continue to get longer and the nights warm up, we will see strawberry volume steadily increase in our California regions leading into the Easter holiday,” Jewell said.
California Giant is harvesting regularly in Santa Maria and Oxnard, and in a few weeks, Watsonville and Salinas will start to have volume as well.
Jewell said Oxnard will go through the spring, and production in Santa Maria will increase weekly during March and continue into the fall.
“We look forward to a good season with somewhat improved weather conditions as compared to 2017, when we lost so much fruit in the first quarter due to excessive rains,” Jewell said. “Our southern California regions have a shorter window to get the crop into market before the season is over, so the better start we get in January and February, the better chances we have of turning a profit.”
Vinnie Lopes, a vice president of sales for Salinas-based Naturipe Farms, also reported great quality. The company has been pleased with the flavor, texture and aroma of its strawberries, which are currently being harvested in Oxnard. Thanks to the warm weather to this point in the year, Santa Maria and Watsonville have also started.
Mother Nature did throw one curveball, though not a terribly nasty one.
“We had a moderate amount of freeze damage in Santa Maria, less in Watsonville and nearly none in Oxnard,” Lopes said. “Most of the freeze damage will be behind us in the next few weeks as we expect good production of high-quality strawberries by the last week of March and all the way through October.”
In addition to weather, factors affecting the season include pest pressure and labor.
“We will see pest pressure as a factor as the weather continues to warm up, which typically increases mite population and requires diligence with treatment so they don’t negatively affect plant health,” Jewell said. “Additionally, as the volume increases we will need more labor, and that will most likely be an issue all summer long.”
Lopes noted that pest pressure was high earlier in the year because of the warm weather but has lessened thanks to some cooler temperatures and the recent rain.
Christian said it is too soon to know whether the early start to California strawberry volume might mean an early finish to the season.
“It certainly helps to get the rain and the cooler weather because the rain washes the salt out of the soil, makes the soil healthier for the plant, and then the cool weather is also good for the plants, both for the health of the plant and for their ability to produce strawberries for a longer period of time later in the season,” Christian said. “So it’s too early to tell whether or not the season would end any earlier. I would say we’d probably be on track for similar to last year.”