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020711socalstrawA combination of factors -- some but not all of them weather related -- have caused the 2011 strawberry season in California to get off to a slow start. Shipments to date from the Oxnard district as of Saturday, Jan. 22, were around 770,000 trays, compared to nearly three times that number as of the same date in 2010, according to data furnished to The Produce News by the California Strawberry Commission.

Heavy rainfall and unusually cold weather in December were major contributors to the slow start, but "there was some problem getting plants from the nurseries for a while, too," which delayed plantings, Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the commission, said Jan. 25.

But thanks to good weather since the first of the year, volumes were now starting to increase, she said. The week ending Jan. 1, total weekly shipments were just 6,900 trays. "Now we are up to over half a million trays per week, and if this weather keeps up, it is definitely going to be picking up."

Growers in Oxnard concurred that beautiful weather since the first of the year was bringing the fruit on. Most said that while availability for the Valentine's Day pull would be somewhat limited, they expected to be in good production by mid-February, providing customers with ample promotional opportunities from then through May. Long before that date, strong production from Santa Maria would be adding to the volume, and by then the harvest in Watsonville would also be well underway.

"The crop is starting off really well," said Stuart Gilfenbain, a salesman at Eclipse Berry Farms LLC, which is headquartered in Los Angeles. Heavy rain "knocked down some early fruit" which would otherwise have been harvested in December, but the rain also brought on "good healthy plant growth," so "it looks like production will be excellent." He expected good volume for Valentine's Day and "very good production for the months of March, April and May" with "outstanding quality for all the key holidays."

Due to the lateness of Easter this year, "we are going to need to do a lot of promoting for the month of March, because we are going to have big numbers," he said.

"We have been blessed with ideal growing weather" following the wet December, said Dan Crowley, sales manager at Well-Pict Inc. in Watsonville, CA. Cool nights and sunny days have provided "ideal conditions for this new crop coming on for us," resulting in firm fruit, good sizing and a "nice shine on the berry."

Not only was Oxnard late to get rolling, but "Irvine is late and Baja [Mexico] is pretty late," Craig Casca, director of sales at Red Blossom Sales Inc. in Santa Maria, CA, said Jan. 24. The light volume was reflected in prices. "Right now the market is $18 to $20," about double what it was the same time a year ago, he said.

But "the [December] rains have been great. The plants look great. Berry quality is excellent coming out of [Oxnard], and we are just waiting for volume to ramp up so that we can get some people going," he said.

As of Jan. 26, A&W Fresh Produce in San Diego was "just beginning to enter the peak of our Baja program in San Quentin," said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing. Both in Baja and in Oxnard, shipments were running "about two to three weeks behind where they would normally be this time of year." But "our thought is that we haven't lost any of this product. It is all still there," and that may mean "a little bit more product" at peak periods.

"I think we can go out and promote confidently from mid-February on," said Louis Ivanovich, a partner in West Lake Fresh, a Watsonville-based berry brokerage.

Mr. Ivanovich noted that there has been a shift in varieties being grown in Oxnard "away from some of the earlier-producing varieties to varieties that have better taste and better appearance."

(For more on Southern California strawberries, see the Feb. 14, 2011, issue of The Produce News.)