( File photo )

Southern California growers anticipate tight supplies of strawberries for Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, but there should be an abundance of the fruit by the time Easter arrives on April 21.

Once again, strawberry acreage in the Oxnard growing area is down this season — 5,300 acres compared to 5,518 acres last year — but production is expected to increase because growers are planting higher-yielding varieties, said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission.

“While we’ve had a trend of reduced acreage over the past several years, we actually are having record-breaking production every year for the past four or five years,” she said.

Last year, growers in the Oxnard area produced about 38.6 million trays of strawberries, up from about 37.2 million trays in 2017, according to the strawberry commission.

A rainy January and early February slowed the start of the 2019 season.

As of the week ending Feb. 2, growers in the Southern California district, which includes Oxnard, Orange County, Coachella and San Diego, had picked about 2 million trays of strawberries. A year ago, volume for the same period was about 3.3 million trays.

More than 5 inches of rain fell in Oxnard during January, compared to an average of 3.4 inches for the month. Another 1.5 inches had fallen by Feb. 5.

Although heavy rain curtailed picking at times, Jim Grabowski, merchandising manager for Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc., said he would prefer to see rainfall during the early season than later on.

Even though precipitation shut down production for a time, the rain refreshed the aquifers, providing much-needed water, he said.

More rain was forecast for late January and early February.

“Right now, we think it’s going to be kind of tight for Valentine’s Day,” he said Jan. 24.

Well-Pict was nearly sold out of stem berries already, he said.

Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Salinas, Calif.-based Naturipe Berry Growers, said he would prefer rain to a freeze, since freezing temperatures can affect a crop for two months, while plants can recover from rain in seven to 10 days.

“You just clean up and get right back in it again,” he said.

Like Grabowski, Moriyama’s main concern was with weather during the peak volume months of March and April.

“That’s the time of year you don’t want to get affected by a lot of weather,” he said. 

“You have way more to lose later than you do now.”

Growers were much more optimistic about strawberry supplies for Easter than for Valentine’s Day.

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“We never fulfill the demand for Valentine’s Day,” said Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville. “We always want more than we have, by far.”

Priority goes to customers who buy from the company consistently throughout the year, she said.

This year’s late Easter is both good and bad for strawberry growers, Jewell said.

Easter kicks off the main berry-selling period.

“You put your stake in the ground for the rest of the season,” she said.

“When Easter is later, and you have a lot of volume earlier, it’s hard to get that momentum going without a holiday to push it.”

On the other hand, a late Easter usually means plenty of strawberries will be available from several growing areas.

Buyers can expect high f.o.b. prices for Valentine’s Day, said Backus Nahas, director of marketing for Success Valley Produce LLC in Oxnard.

He said the crop might be tight through March, but retailers should be able to promote strawberries throughout April.

On Feb. 4, f.o.b. prices for trays of eight 1-pound clamshell containers of strawberries from the Oxnard District were mostly $20-22 with “light” supplies and demand that “exceeds supply,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A year earlier, they were mostly $14-16. Higher prices are good for California growers, who have to cope with rising costs, including an increase in the minimum wage.

“The f.o.b.s are going to have to rise, otherwise, we are going to be regulated out of business,” he said.
Bob Rigor, vice president of sales for CBS Farms, Watsonville, agreed.

“We could all use some better markets right now,” he said.

He added that he was pleased with the late Easter.

“The more that Easter is pushed back, the more we’ll have Watsonville rolling, and that specifically helps us,” he said.

CBS Farms hopes to step up its crossings from Central Mexico and Baja California to keep customers supplied year-round, he said.

Meanwhile, Nahas said berry quality is “absolutely beautiful,” with good size, sheen and shape. P