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Strawberry volume rebounding following freak storm

by Tim Linden | October 21, 2009
Strawberry growers up and down California were back in their fields the week of Oct. 19 trying to coax the plants back into production and capitalize on the hot market caused by the freak storm that raked the state the week before.

For the week ending Oct. 10, California produced about 3 million trays of strawberries and would have produced about the same the following week if not for the huge storm that hit the state's coastal regions Oct. 13-15.

In advance of the storm on Monday, Oct. 12, California growers tried to strip their fields and picked about 587,000 trays that day, including 386,000 trays from the Salinas-Watsonville area. With close to five inches of rain pelting the state over the following couple of days, the northern district had no production on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Oxnard district saw its production cut in half for the week.

Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA, said that at least 2 million trays were lost that week. Production started to come back the week of Oct. 19, but it was expected to take at least another week to 10 days for the plants to approach pre-rain production.

"We are back in the field now, and the berries are making grade, but the fruit is small," said Paul Foster, a salesman for Beach Street Farms in Watsonville, CA. "We are running 26 to 30 count (per one pound clamshell) and it should will remain small at least until next week."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that close to 200,000 trays were picked statewide on Oct. 19 and that daily volume will probably double over the next several days, but it still won't reach the pre-storm numbers and probably won't again for the rest of the season.

Ms. Jewell said that the season is starting to wind down as most growers in the northern district are typically finished by mid-November. The fall deals in Oxnard and Santa Maria will continue to increase in volume, but total volume will be off because of the mid-October storm.

Mr. Foster said that growers in Watsonville want to keep picking as long as possible to keep the labor force intact for the planting of next year's crop, which will begin soon.

"If we stop picking, the labor force will be gone and these guys will have to scramble to get workers," he said.

Ms. Jewell said that October is a very important month for most growers because it is when the financial fruits of a long summer are realized. "Most growers need a good October to get into the black," she said. "Prior to the rain, everyone was happy. But now this could be a tough year."

But Ms. Jewell added that there was no rain predicted for the foreseeable future, so it is possible that growers will be able to make up some of those rain losses over the next several weeks.

As expected, with supplies limited, the market shot up. After topping $20 per tray when there was very little fruit available in mid-October, the market dropped several dollars on Wednesday, Oct. 21, depending upon the size and quality of the fruit being shipped.

"Southern California is quoting $14 to $18, and I have heard of one guy at $20," said Mr. Foster. "Up here, we are at $12 to $16. I think $18 is scaring people off. The price should start to come down as volume increases over the next week."

Ms. Jewell said that demand still exceeds supply.

"Today [Oct. 21] we would be quoting $16 to $20, but we don't have any fruit," she said.