While above-average rainfall in California this winter put a damper on early supplies of strawberries, grower-shippers expected heavy volume of high-quality fruit once the rain stopped and temperatures started to rise.
As of March 9, the number of trays shipped was just over half of last year’s total — 4.3 million compared with 9.4 million at the same time in 2018, according to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.
Once again, statewide fall-planted strawberry acreage for winter, spring and summer production dropped — from 27,426 acres in 2018 to 25,704 in 2019.
But growers expected increased output from high-yielding varieties like monterey to more than make up for the acreage reduction.
In 2018, the state’s growers produced 224,491,465 trays of strawberries, an increase from the 206 million trays produced in 2017, according to the commission.
With normal weather conditions from April 15 through Oct. 31, the commission expected volume to “equal or exceed the three-year average.”
Meanwhile, supplies for Easter, April 21, seemed iffy for some shippers, but others were confident that the Easter bunny would have plenty of strawberries to munch on.
All were in agreement that Mom will be able to enjoy plenty of berries on Mother’s Day, May 12.
“It’s been a tough year so far,” Jim Grabowski, merchandising manager for Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc., said in early March.
On-again, off-again rainy weather and unusually cool temperatures curtailed early-season production, he said.
Grabowski and other marketers were thankful that Easter is late this year.
“Hopefully, by that point in time, things should be all straightened out,” he said.
Once the weather starts to warm, there will be a “huge infusion of strawberries out of Southern California all at one time,” he said.
The Watsonville district typically is picking limited volume by April 1, but that likely will be delayed this year, leaving the Oxnard and Santa Maria growing areas to supply the market, said Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for Watsonville-based California Giant Inc.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to have a chunk of the season on their own before Watsonville kicks in,” she said.
The cool weather could be beneficial for the late Easter holiday, she added.
“It keeps the plants dormant a little bit longer in the field, so they start a little bit later,” she said.
Since Watsonville-based CBS Farms is primarily a Watsonville shipper, the company doesn’t expect to have much fruit in April, said Bob Rigor, vice president of sales.
“I don’t anticipate us having strong supplies for Easter,” he said.
He was more optimistic about May.
“We should have better supplies for Mother’s Day versus what we’ll have for Easter.”
And once the fruit does come off, “We’ll have quality, and we’ll have decent-size berries,” he said.
Late March or early April was the target date for Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Berry Growers to start picking in Watsonville, said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations.
Mid-April should be peak season for Santa Maria and Oxnard, he added.
He said he was pleased with berry quality.
“Everything looks really, really good,” he said.
Backus Nahas, director of marketing for Oxnard, Calif.-based Success Valley Produce LLC, was concerned that the early-season shortfall could impact growers’ profitability for the season.
“We probably lost about 500 boxes to an acre that we’re not ever going to get back,” he said.
The timing could not have been worse.
“We lost those at an elevated price in a crucial time in the market when we need that money to help get us through the lower prices that we
experience throughout the summertime,” he said.
Increased labor costs coupled with competition from Mexico are putting pressure on strawberry growers, he said.
“If we’re not hitting $14 (per tray) averages throughout the year, we’re not making money anymore,” he said.
“Without it, it could be detrimental for our season.”