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With an all-time high of 37,914 planted acres of strawberries in California and with shipments by March 7 tracking ahead of last year, the 2009 season could be headed for another volume record for fresh California strawberries.

Strong volume is expected to come on in time for Easter promotions.

Statewide strawberry acreage for 2009 is up 3.8 percent over 2008 and up 16 percent over 2005, with steady increases each year.

California produces roughly 80 percent of the strawberries grown in the United States, and typically, about 70 percent of the crop is shipped fresh. Fresh strawberry shipments from California in 2008 totaled nearly 153 million trays, up from the previous record year of 147 million trays in 2007.

According to Chris Christian, vice president of the California Strawberry Commission, season-to-date shipments through the week ending March 7 totaled 8.5 million fresh trays. "That is up 2.3 million" from the same date in 2008, she said. "We are well above historic averages" for the year to date, "probably a couple of million [trays] ahead."

But weekly volume to date has been but a small fraction of what is expected during peak season, which was rapidly approaching. "Shipments are picking up this week out of the southern districts," primarily Oxnard, CA, Ms. Christian said March 11. "They are also picking up a bit in Santa Maria [CA]." Over the next couple of weeks, "we are going to ramp up really quickly." By the last week of March, shipments should be in the range of 4 million trays per week.

"Last year, from the first week of April all the way through mid-July, we averaged over 5 million fresh trays per week out of California," she said. "That offers tremendous availability, obviously, for Easter as well as for consistent promotions from spring all the way through summer. It allows our customers to plan their promotions and expand their displays and take advantage of our record crop and availability and really drive strawberry sales this year."

"We are excited about a strong, healthy supply for Easter," which falls on April 12 this year, said Valerie Lott, strawberry business manager for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. in Watsonville, CA. The majority of supplies for Easter and for most of April will come from the Oxnard district, with some fruit coming from Santa Maria as well, she said. The Watsonville-Salinas district should start in a light way shortly and should get into heavy volume by the latter part of April.

Peak production in Oxnard was "lined up perfectly for Eastern promotions," said Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Inc. in Watsonville. In Santa Maria, the company's strawberry harvest should also be underway in time to supplement the Easter supplies, he said.

"Things are going great," said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant in Watsonville. "Even though it seems like we have had a lot of rain down in Southern California, we are ahead of where we were last year." She expects to see strong volume available for Easter and on through Mother's Day.

According to the California Strawberry Commission's 2009 acreage survey, the Albion, a University of California variety introduced just three years ago, now accounts for 36.2 percent of the total strawberry acreage in California. In the Santa Maria and Oxnard districts, the variety accounts for 51 percent and 57 percent of the acreage, respectively.

Statewide, proprietary varieties account for nearly 38 percent of the planted acreage, but in the Oxnard district, nearly 59 percent of the acreage is planted with proprietary varieties. Ventana is the most widely planted university variety in Oxnard at about 25 percent of the total acreage.

Total 2009 strawberry acreage for the Watsonville-Salinas district is 14,571 acres, up 3.2 percent over last year and representing about 38 percent of the state total.

The Oxnard district has the second-largest acreage in the state with 11,766 acres planted this year, virtually unchanged from a year ago.

Santa Maria has 9,529 acres of strawberries this year, up 9.3 percent over 2008.

Orange and San Diego counties have 1,867 acres of strawberries this year, an increase of 4.3 percent over last year.

Organic strawberry acreage for 2009 is 1,765 acres, or 4.6 percent of the total state acreage, a decrease of 78 acres from 2008.

(For more on the California strawberry deal, see the March 23 issue of The Produce News.)