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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 in April.

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 promotions.

"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.)