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Despite strawberries commanding high prices at retail, consumers aren't exactly heading for the exits.

Andy Gustavson, produce manager for Ben Lomond Market in Ben Lomond, CA, and produce supervisor for sister store Scotts Valley Market, told The Produce News Jan. 28 that strawberries have been "astronomical" in price. Rainy weather in Southern California and a freeze in Florida had tightened strawberry supplies.

More rain was forecast for Southern California Jan. 29 and for later in the week of Feb. 1.

A one-pound clamshell of strawberries sold for $5.99 at Ben Lomond Market Jan. 28, and “they’ve been at least $10 per case higher than usual,” Mr. Gustavson said.

Despite the high price, customers “haven’t really complained,” he said. Nonetheless, the store is “selling a handful compared to what we normally sell,” he said, adding that his customers are loyal to Ben Lomond Market and buy their fresh produce there instead of from competitors.

Typically, strawberries drop in price in January, but not this year, Mr. Gustavson said. “I prefer [buying] good berries over low price,” he said. The berries currently have good color and “eat decent,” he said, adding that for a few weeks, he was unable to get organic berries.

Mr. Gustavson tries to buy only California strawberries. “I prefer California berries,” he stated. “Once in a while we’ll get berries from Florida.”

Ben Lomond Market will have strawberries on ad for Valentine’s Day “if our supplier has berries,” Mr. Gustavson said. “If I can get nice [strawberry] stems, I’ll get them. Stems are harder to sell because they get real pricey.”

Star Market in Salinas, CA, is a mid-sized, independent, family-owned store. When The Produce News spoke Jan. 28 with Ryan Souter, produce manager at Star Market, an eight-ounce package of strawberries was selling for $4.99. The price had been about $5.69-5.79 a few weeks previous.

“This is really high for strawberries,” Mr. Souter said. A more typical price range at Star market is $1.99-$2.99 for a one-pound clamshell.

As of Jan. 28, Star Market had not experienced any problems getting strawberries, Mr. Souter said. For Valentine’s Day, clamshells are the norm, but the store tries to get long-stem strawberries as well, even though stems typically don’t sell as well at Star Market, Mr. Souter stated.

Star Market generally doesn’t put strawberries on ad when the berries aren’t local, Mr. Souter said. Watsonville, CA-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. is the main provider of strawberries to the store. Star Market also carries other berries from Driscoll’s berry patch program.

(For more on Southern California strawberries, see the Feb. 8, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)