Drought-stricken Southern California had another problem early this year - too much rain.

After several years of well-below normal rainfall totals, the dam broke, so to speak, and precipitation figures skyrocketed.

As of Feb. 1, Ventura, the heart of the local strawberry industry, recorded 11 inches of rain. A year ago, the area had 5 inches. Normal for that date is 8 inches.

Despite this year's deluge, state officials had not removed the drought designation for the southern part of the state, though most Northern California counties were said to be out of the drought.

That's good news for Southern California, which gets much of its water from the Sierra snowpack in the north.

Strawberry growers were happy to see the rain, though they were not pleased to lose several days' worth of berries during a particularly heavy storm Jan. 29.

"Everything was looking really good before that 4 or 5 inches of rain," said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Naturipe Farms LLC, Salinas, Calif.

Naturipe has growing operations in the Oxnard and Santa Maria districts in Southern California.

Camarillo in Ventura County had record rain Jan. 29, he said.

The storm caused growers to lose 10 days' worth of strawberries, including some for Valentine's Day, Moriyama said.

After the rain subsided, growers did a lot of stripping of the fields and sent some product to juicers, he said.

"It did a lot of damage to the mature fruit that was on the plant," he said.

Later in the week, things were returning to normal.

"We're back picking again," Moriyama said Jan. 31.

He was optimistic about the coming season.

"Quality looks good," he said. "The plants look healthy."

As of early February, he said prices also looked good.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture listed the f.o.b. price of a tray of eight 1-pound clamshells of medium berries out of Oxnard as $16-18 on Feb. 1. A year earlier, because of tight supplies, they were $24.

Watsonville, Calif.-based CBS Farms also suffered a setback in Southern California, said Charlie Staka, operations manager.

Total volume for the season was well behind last year because of the rain, but the company was back to normal production the first week of February.

Staka said he expected volume figures to return to normal by mid- to late February.

Despite the recent rain, the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission said the state's growers had shipped about 1.2 million trays of strawberries as of Jan. 28, an increase from 890,000 trays a year earlier.

During the week ending Jan. 28, however, shippers moved only 130,000 trays, down from 305,000 a year earlier.

Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc. typically picks 50,000 to 60,000 trays a day at this time of year, said Jim Grabowski, merchandising manager. On Jan. 31, he said the company was picking 20,000 trays per day.

"We're getting about a third of our yield because of the rain situation," he said.

The rain didn't cause permanent damage to the crop, he said, "It just set us back a little bit."

The Southern California season includes two big strawberry holidays - Valentine's Day on Feb. 14 and Easter on April 16.

Most growers were more optimistic about Easter, which is relatively late this year, than Valentine's Day.

"Valentine's Day is up in the air," Grabowski said.

He expected picking to increase, but wasn't sure if it would be enough for the Valentine's Day pull.

"It will be somewhat of a tighter situation for Valentine's Day than we would like to see," he said.

Growers generally thought a late Easter will be a good thing.

"We should be in good shape for Easter - barring any unforeseen weather situations," Grabowski said.

"That's going to let Southern California catch up."

"Easter should be great," Moriyama said.

Growers should be at near peak production by mid-April, he said. An early Easter could leave them scrambling to come up with enough fruit to fill orders.

Meanwhile, in the Santa Maria district, picking was just getting started in early February, Moriyama said.

The rain caused about a two-week delay, he said, but he expected good quality once shipments pick up.

 
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