California strawberry deal demanding nimbleness for players involved
by Brian Gaylord | March 16, 2010
California's strawberry grower-shippers may not be as resolute as the U.S.
Postal Service with its unofficial motto not to be diverted from the task of
delivering the mail through rain, snow, sleet or hail.
But it's not for lack of trying.
Heavy rainfall delayed and limited strawberry supplies coming out of Southern
California this past fall and winter. But many California growers plant in
various strawberry growing regions in the state that overlap when the
northern region -- the Watsonville-Salinas area -- typically comes on strong
Then too, some growers also can turn to their strawberry operations in
Florida and central Mexico. These considerations especially are at play when
it comes to meeting retailer demand for Easter promotions, one of the more
significant promotional holidays for the strawberry industry.
Craig Casca, chief executive officer of Santa Maria, CA-based Red Blossom
Sales Inc., told The Produce News in early March that the company needed
"some warm, dry weather quick to hit Easter with impactful volume" and that
San Diego, Irvine and Oxnard as well as Florida would be the main supply
areas for Easter.
"Santa Maria is going to help with Easter but will be dependent on some dry,
warmer weather to be effective," Mr. Casca said. "Salinas will not have much
of an impact on Easter supplies."
Persistent, heavy rains in early March "have made it tough to stay on track as
well as predict short-term volume," he said.
Florida was still recovering from a freeze and its production had been very
low. Thus, Red Blossom was going to have to "really depend on California
supplies to help make Easter smooth," Mr. Casca said.
"If we get good weather, the fields are full of flowers and could hit just right
for the Easter pull, which begins the week of March 22," he said. "Retailers
need to keep posted on supply and volume fluctuations, as we will all be
watching the crop timing right up to the last minute this year."
Michael Hollister, vice president of sales and marketing for Watsonville, CA-
based Driscoll Strawberry Associates, said that Oxnard, Baja California and
Florida will all have a major impact on Driscoll's strawberry supplies for
Easter. Central Mexico will have some impact on Easter, and Santa Maria will
have some strawberries for Easter, as well.
"We're significant [strawberry] players in Florida," Mr. Hollister said, adding
that Easter "lines up perfect for a surge."
California's strawberry production generally peaks in late April or early May
with overlapping zones harvesting at the same time. Driscoll's strawberry
harvest in the Watsonville-Salinas area "starts later and runs longer," he said.
Brian Bocock, vice president of sales for Naples, FL-based Naturipe Farms
LLC, said that Oxnard "will play a major role in the Easter pull." Florida and
central Mexico may play into Naturipe's Easter pull, provided either area stays
in production long enough, he said.
In addition to Oxnard, Naturipe grows strawberries in California in
Watsonville and in the Salinas Valley as well as in Irvine and Santa Maria.
Watsonville, CA-based Colleen Strawberries Inc. grows strawberries only in
Watsonville. The early Easter combined with unfavorable weather conditions
means that Colleen likely won't participate in Easter this year.
Seascape, CA-based Sweet Darling Sales Inc. is the sales arm for Larse Farms
Inc., located a few miles west of Watsonville. Bob Rigor, sales manager for
Sweet Darling Sales, said that about 75 percent of Larse Farms' strawberry
acreage is west of Watsonville and the other 25 percent or so is in nearby
Salinas. So Sweet Darling finds itself in a similar situation as Colleen
Strawberries, so it also likely won't be able to participate in Easter
"The whole northern [California] deal will miss Easter," Mr. Rigor said.
Watsonville, CA-based West Lake Fresh is one of the main brokerages in the
United States that specializes in berries. The company covers all major
Western strawberry growing areas, including Baja California. The company
also handles strawberries out of Plant City, FL, and Dover, FL.
Louis Ivanovich, a principal in West Lake Fresh, said that for growers, Oxnard
and Orange County is a sprint and Watsonville-Salinas is a long-distance run
with an eight-month or ninth-month window.
"Oxnard can go from zero to 100 in a blink of an eye and be in control," Mr.
Ivanovich said. "It's a very nicely done area." Watsonville-Salinas tends to be
orderly and smooth, he said. "Santa Maria used to mimic [Southern
California], but now it follows the Watsonville gamebook."
Growers have to work smart to maximize their yields. The California
strawberry 2010 acreage survey shared by the California Strawberry
Commission shows that total California strawberry acreage stood at 36,943
acres for 2010 -- 1,692 fewer acres and representing more than a 4 percent
drop from 2009.
The Watsonville-Salinas district remains the largest in the state with more
than 41 percent of total acreage announced in 2010. Acreage there decreased
by 829 acres, or more than 5 percent, from 2009. Santa Maria also shows
decreased acreage for 2010.
Growers -- especially in the Watsonville-Salinas and Santa Maria districts this
year -- have to work smart to maximize their yields. There are a lot of things
to consider, Mr. Ivanovich said.
For instance, using the right package at the right time can eliminate costs.
Proper packaging decisions can spread the cost of a truckload, he said.
"Let the fruit speak to you," Mr. Ivanovich said. With large-sized berries, two-
and four-pound packs can be the right fit. In an attempt to make weight and
offer a good-looking pack, smaller berries naturally are better suited to
smaller packs. I'm seeing a strong surge in requests for two- and four-
pounders. Bigger pack sizes help it get home the first time."
There's still strong demand for processed strawberries, he added. "The
process market gives a stable floor to fresh producers. It gives them the
option to pare off fruit and not dump fruit on the marketplace."
(For more on the California strawberry deal, see the March 22, 2010, issue of
The Produce News.)