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Strawberry prices up as weather limits supply

by Tim Linden | February 17, 2010
The strawberry market rose several dollars per tray leading into the Valentine's Day holiday weekend and remained above $20 per flat the following week (Feb. 15-19) as demand exceeded supply. However, several days of dry weather in California and improving growing conditions in Florida should result in better supplies by the time the calendar turns to March.

Fritz Koontz, owner of Beach Street Farms LLC in Watsonville, CA, told The Produce News Feb. 17 that the strong marketing conditions should remain for at least another week or so, "but I think there is a good chance we will see a flush in volume in about two weeks."

Mr. Koontz said that the lack of steady supplies from Florida has been an issue since the season started because of the extremely cold and wet weather that hit the Sunshine State in January. California and Mexico have also seen the weather affect with their strawberry harvests, with off-and-on rains for most of January and February. "It's dry right now in all the growing regions (California, Mexico and Florida), but another storm is coming to California later this week, so who knows what's going to happen next week."

The longtime strawberry grower said that although there have been reports that acreage is down in California, he is skeptical of their veracity. "Those are estimates for the Santa Maria and Watsonville districts for later in the year and maybe they will have a little impact in the summer and fall, but I don't think [decreased acreage] will be much of a factor," he said.

Mr. Koontz added that the acreage being harvested now is similar to previous years, and he expects that once the weather warms up, the volume will be there. Weather issues, most notably rain, typically affect the strawberry deal in January and February. "Volume almost always starts to pick up in March, and I think that will happen again this year."

He did caution, however, that weather forecasters are saying California is in an El NiƱo situation, which means a greater-than-normal potential for rain. A few forecasters have predicted that the state could get rainfall figures this year that are 10-30 percent greater than an average year. However, there would still be plenty of dry days in which to harvest strawberries. If the extra rain does materialize, strawberry shippers may have a more volatile situation than usual, but total supplies will probably not be substantially affected as the season moves forward into the spring months.

Cindy Jewel, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA, spent Tuesday, Feb. 16, in the fields in Oxnard and said, "They looked great. It's been dry for a few days, and the weather was gorgeous, so the fields were cleaned up nicely and the plants had lots of berries on them."

She said, however, that another storm was predicted within the week, and the severity of it will determine California berry supplies for the next two weeks or so. "Once we get warm weather for several days in a row, volume will pick up quickly because the plants are ready to pop."

Ms. Jewel said that a quick look at total volume shipped thus far paints a clear picture of the strong market.

The Southern California districts of Orange County and Oxnard had sent about 3.7 million trays to market by Feb. 13 compared to more than 4.5 million trays by the same date a year earlier.

"And Florida has only shipped about half the volume it did last year by this time," she added.

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, the U.S. Federal State Market news Service reported that a demand-exceeded-supply situation existed in Southern California, and a flat of strawberries with 12 one-pint baskets was selling for $22-$23 f.o.b. compared to a week earlier, when it was in the $13-$15 range.