The Southern California strawberry scene - the Orange County district, in particular - has changed dramatically over the past decade or so.

Matt Kawamura, partner in Irvine, Calif.-based Orange County Produce LLC, said there were nearly a dozen major grower-shippers in the district at one time. Now, his company is the only major player left - and it's a shadow of its former self, acreagewise.

"We have shrunk all the way down to whatever ground is left," he said.

This season, that's 200 acres of conventional strawberries and 60 acres of organic.

At its peak eight or nine years ago, the company had 700 acres in Orange County.

"We have been basically land management for the big ground owners that are left in Orange County because all the small, individual farms have been developed or sold," he said.

The Irvine Co., Miami-based Lennar Corp. and the U.S. military are the three large landowners Kawamura deals with.

Strawberry acreage dropped from 1,770 acres in 2004 to 658 acres in 2014, according to statistics from the Orange County agricultural commissioner.

Kawamura said he doesn't know from one season to the next how much strawberry land he'll have or where it will be.

"The ground comes and goes," he said. "We'll have a piece of property, and in a year we won't have it. There will be houses on it."

At one time, Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Berry Growers also was a major player in Orange County, said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations.

"Naturipe was large down there," he said. "We're not there now."

In the 1980s, Naturipe had more than 1,000 acres in the district, he said. The company has been out this season and last, mostly the result of development.

"Either growers retired, or they moved," he said.

Dominic Etcheberria, now Los Angeles berry sales manager for Brooks, Ore.-based Curry & Co., spent more than a decade in Orange County in sales and planning for Magarro Farms and overseeing the cooler and handling other responsibilities as general manager for Irvine Valencia Growers, a division of the Irvine Co.

Orange County offered growers a number of advantages, he said.

The growing area generally got a two- to three-week jump on the Oxnard deal, he said, and growers had access to the University of California South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine and renowned strawberry guru Victor Voth.

Varieties seemed to perform better in Orange County's rich soil, but that was the first ground to be snapped up for development, he said.

Growers then had to learn to farm on heavier soil.

As available land disappeared, growers began moving about 100 miles northwest to Oxnard.

Orange County Produce now has 800 acres of strawberries in Oxnard, Kawamura said.

"Basically, it all went up there," he said.

Some growers planted acreage in Santa Maria, as well.

Santa Maria may be an expanding strawberry hot spot as development starts to infringe on the Oxnard/Ventura area, like it has in Orange County, Moriyama said.

"It's easier to get ground probably in Santa Maria than Ventura now," he said.

Santa Maria is unique in that it can grow northern and southern strawberry varieties, he said.

Meanwhile, small growing operations seem to be disappearing throughout the state.

"You see very few small, independent regional farmers left," Kawamura said.

"Even in Watsonville, you're seeing less and less as land gets shorter and shorter and it gets harder to make it as a farmer," he said.

That's especially true in California.

"The regulatory burden we have in California has been crushing us," he said.

But the strawberry industry will always be around in California, Kawamura said, because of the climate, fertile ground and strawberry varieties that "have allowed us to have the best quality and be the biggest supplier of the country by far."

 
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