Rainfall in Santa Maria and throughout California has helped the health of the strawberry plants this season, says Michelle Deleissegues, marketing director for Red Blossom Sales Inc., Salinas, Calif. "We think our quality will be excellent," she says. ( Red Blossom Sales Inc. )

California strawberry growers are hopeful as spring progresses that one of the state's rainiest winters is behind them. And they seem optimistic about the coming season.

"We're pretty much on track with where we were this time last year," Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission, said in early March.

However, the industry was behind in shipments compared to two years ago, when the season kicked off extremely early because of lack of rain.

For the week ending March 11, California growers had shipped 5.2 million trays, down a little from the 6.7 million shipped the same time a year earlier but far less than the 12.9 million trays shipped by that time in 2015.

Strawberry growers had a record-breaking year in 2016, harvesting 196.4 million trays.

Volume for the previous year, despite the early start, was 189.9 million trays.

O'Donnell expects volume this year to be similar to 2016.

Acreage is up slightly this year - 36,141 acres versus 36,039 last year - but yields continue to increase significantly.

"We are getting more trays per acres due to the newer varieties," O'Donnell said.

California provides more than 87% of the strawberries consumed in North America, according to the University of California-Davis.

"It's been quite a year," said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Berry Growers.

"It rained most of February," he said.


Spring cleaning

Growers cleaned up their fields the first week of March, which was the first seven-day period in quite a while that had not seen any rain, he said.

"It feels like it's starting to change a little bit now," Moriyama said.

The company had to throw away a lot of fruit that ordinarily would have been picked, he said.

"Everything has been kind of delayed."

But by the second week of March, plants in Oxnard were cleaned up and the area was starting to ramp up for its peak season.

Naturipe started picking in Santa Maria in late February and picked even more fruit in early March, Moriyama said.

The company expected to start picking in the Salinas/Watsonville area by the end of March.

"We're a month behind in Santa Maria and in the north (Salinas/Watsonville) from when we normally start," Moriyama said.

"To date, the market has been stronger than normal, but supplies have been low," he said.

The f.o.b. price for trays of eight 1-pound clamshells of medium strawberries was $14 on March 7 - twice what they sold for a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Moriyama anticipated promotable pricing in April.

Success Valley Produce LLC, Oxnard, Calif., was picking in Oxnard and Santa Maria in early March, said Backus Nahas, director of marketing.

"We're definitely coming out of the effects of the rain," he said.

"The quality has cleaned up, the fruit set is fantastic, the flowers are fantastic, and we've got a good amount of predictable volume coming ahead of us," Nahas said.

"Santa Maria is looking phenomenal," he said.

"We've got good production coming on up there."

He anticipated a "very, very solid peak" for Easter - April 16.

"There should be ample supplies to promote for that timeframe," he said.

Nahas wasn't complaining about the rain.

"It definitely will help the plants in the long run because it leeches out all the salts in the ground and fills up our reservoirs, which gives us the opportunity to grow more fruit in future years," he said.

It's better to have the rain in January and February than later in the season, when volume is picking up, said Anthony Gallino, vice president of sales for California Giant Berry Farms, Watsonville.

The company was two weeks behind in early March, but Gallino expected to be caught up by early April.

"We'll really pop back quick," he said, adding that it helps that Easter, a big strawberry holiday, is late this year.