( Photo courtesy Hal Gatewood )

Exceptionally good weather heading into February had Southern California strawberry growers optimistic about the coming season.

Acreage in Oxnard was down slightly this season — from 5,198 acres in 2019 to 5,176 in 2020 — according to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

But the commission says higher-yielding varieties have resulted in record levels of production year after year despite drops in acreage.

Well-Pict Inc., Watsonville, Calif., was harvesting in Oxnard in late January with volume rising steadily.

“Numbers are incrementally larger every week,” said Jim Grabowski, merchandising manager.

Berry size, flavor and color are “excellent,” he added. The weather has been good, too.

“It’s pointing to a good season so far,” he said.

Oxnard should peak in mid-March and ship well into May.

Rains late last year were “nice easy rains, not torrential,” he said.

As of the end of January, about 8 inches of rain had fallen in Oxnard since Oct. 1, about 1 inch above average.

The rains cleansed the soil of salts and “set up the berries for a good, healthy growing season,” Grabowski said.

It’s also been a good market pricewise, Grabowski said, bringing in decent prices for growers.

On Jan. 29, f.o.b. prices for trays of eight 1-pound clamshells of medium-size berries were mostly $16-18, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Salinas, Calif-based Naturipe Berry Growers started picking in Oxnard in November, said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations.

“We did get an early start,” he said.

He characterized the weather as “odd,” with alternating periods of warm and cold conditions.

Rain in Oxnard has been “kind of intermittent,” he said.

“It’s just enough to be beneficial but not enough to cause any delays or damage.”

Oxnard-based Success Valley Produce LLC grows a lot of the frontera and benicia varieties in Oxnard, said Backus Nahas, director of marketing.

In late January, he described the quality as “phenomenal.”

“Weather has been fantastic,” he said. “But we could always use a little bit more rain in the winter time.”

It’s also been a good year for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia.

“We’re setting up for a nice Southern California strawberry period,” said Jason Fung, vice president of categories for berries and greenhouse.

Growers are keeping an eye on temperatures, he said, since the region had an unusually cold February a couple of seasons ago.

So far, the outlook is favorable.

“All indicators are quite good,” Fung said.

All the grower-shippers expected a strong Valentine’s Day.

“It’s setting up very nicely for Valentine’s Day promotions,” Fung said.

Nahas also was optimistic.

“We’re anticipating good volumes out of the Oxnard district to come right around the Valentine’s Day period,” he said. “There will be definitely promotable volumes from that point forward.” 

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