Another record-setting season could be teed up for California strawberry growers, but it isn’t because growers planted more acres of fruit.
“We’ve certainly got off to a good start, with cool nights and warm sunny days,” said Dan Crowley, vice president of sales for Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Berries.
California strawberry acreage is down in recent years, but higher yielding varieties have allowed volume to continue to grow.
“Weather has been perfect in California, and everything looks fantastically good,” said Craig Casca, vice president and head of markets for Los Olivos, Calif.-based Red Blossom.
For 2018, total strawberry acreage in California is rated at 33,791 acres, down about 7% from 36,387 acres planted in 2017. Acreage is down the most in Southern California districts.
Despite the lower acreage, crop yields so far haven’t disappointed, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville.
“We have been harvesting (in Oxnard) since shortly after Christmas, and weather has been great and there is no rain in sight,” she said.
“Last year we had so much rain and the guys in Oxnard had a shorter season as a result — we should have a nice long season this year.”
Oxnard output should wind down by Mother’s Day, she said.
According to the California Strawberry Acreage survey, compiled by the California Strawberry Commission, 2018 reported acreage will continue the trend of increasing fruit production on decreasing planted acreage.
The report noted that over the past three years, planted acreage has declined by 13% while total volume has increased by 6%, resulting in two consecutive years of record fruit production.
California strawberry marketers shipped 6 million or more trays of fruit for 16 weeks in 2017, said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the Watsonville-based commission.
Total shipments last year hit a record 206 million trays, up from the 2016 record of 197 million trays.
Newer dominant varieties are producing more fruit per acre than some of the older varieties, O’Donnell said.
According to the acreage report, acreage planted in the fall for winter, spring and summer production was 27,804 acres in 2018, down 6.5% from 29,726 acres in 2017.
By district, Orange County/San Diego/Coachella represented just 197 acres in 2018, down 50% from 393 acres planted last year.
Fall planted strawberry acreage in Oxnard was 5,878 acres in 2018, down 15.8% from 6,980 acres last year. Fall planted acreage in Santa Maria was 8,506 acres, off 3.4% from 8,805 acres a year ago.
Higher costs, tight labor and greater regulation in Oxnard have caused some growing entities to leave the region, Crowley said.
However, Crowley said Well-Pict is committed to the Oxnard district.
“It is our philosophy to hunker down and survive the challenges,” he said.
Dole Food last fall suspended its berry operations in Oxnard, and Los Angeles-based Eclipse Berry recently filed for bankruptcy, two developments that contributed to the decline in acreage in Southern California.
Casca said the reduction of acreage is healthy for the deal.
“Any time you take glutted volume off the market it is better for everybody,” he said.
In Watsonville/Salinas, fall planted acreage was 13,223 acres, down 2.4% from 13,549 acres a year ago.
O’Donnell said California strawberry shippers will have great supply from mid-March, with highest output levels from mid-March through September.
The summer planted strawberry acreage — which will produce fruit in the fall season — is projected at 5,998 acres, off 10.1% from a year ago.
Oxnard’s projected summer plantings of 3,192 acres are down 1.4% from a year ago, with Santa Maria’s summer planting of 2,786 off 18% and Watsonville/Salinas summer acreage of just 10 acres off 54% from a year ago.
The acreage survey said Mexico’s strawberry acreage for 2017-18 was 27,700 acres, up 4.4% compared with the previous years.
Florida’s strawberry acreage for 2017-18 is estimated at 11,680 acres, down 1.1% compared with a year ago.
O’Donnell said California’s southern districts face a tougher market in the winter, in part because of rising output from Mexico.
Strawberry volume from Mexico was expected strong through the end of February, Casca said, after which it will taper off when California and Florida seasonally increase in March.
With big volumes out of California and Florida, he said volume for Easter promotions should be ample. Easter is April 1.
In February last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said f.o.b. pricing of conventional fruit in the Oxnard District was $16-18 per flat of 8 1-pound clamshell in early February and then dipped to $14-16 per flat at the end February.
The lowest price for Oxnard berries was reported May 6 last year, when prices of $5-7 per flat were reported by the USDA.
Organic shipping point prices were in a $24-28 per flat in February. Organic strawberry prices reached their lowest point last year in Oxnard in late April, when prices of $10-12 per flat were reported by USDA.