Unlike the scorching heat the rest of the country experienced earlier this summer, temperatures on the West Coast remained cool until well after the Fourth of July, delaying the start of the fall strawberry season by as much as one month.
Despite the delay, California growers are narrowing the gap between this year’s production to-date and last year’s record-setting season. As of July 23, California had shipped 121 million trays of fresh strawberries, compared to roughly 125 million trays at the same time last year and 123 million trays in 2009.
“We definitely saw a slow start to our season this year. It was a cool, wet spring, and it stayed cool and wet much later than we usually expect. Then we had a couple of rain incidents into the early summer that we normally don’t get. All those things did kind of slow the season down to start,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director of the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville, CA. “We are definitely seeing things catch up, and although [the weather] delayed the season, it seems like everything is just kind of shifted forward by about a month.”
Ms. O’Donnell was quick to note that production has ramped up. “Two months ago, we were more than 8 million trays behind, now we’re 3.9 million [trays behind]. We’re back up in the ballpark. We’re definitely closing that gap, even though our acreage was just flat. Last year was a record-breaking year for production. We don’t know if we’ll exceed that, but we’re definitely catching up with it. The fall looks like it’s shaping up to be a nice, consistent season. The weather has stabilized now and growers are happy. We expect the volume to stay pretty much on target with some great quality. We expect there’ll be some very nice berries into the fall.”
“The weather has been kind of weird for the whole summer, everybody will attest to that,” added Craig Casca of Red Blossom Farms Inc., in Salina, CA. “On the positive side, it’s slowed things down, which is good for the plants. On the bad side, it’s made berry size smaller than we’d like. But in the long run we’re going to have better berries for a longer period of time.”Not only did weather hamper early-season production, it also impeded shipping. Rain, followed by cool temperatures and cloud cover, left fruit too damp to ship far beyond the state’s borders.
“We’re a little bit behind, but everyone’s thinking we’re going to make it up in the end,” added Cindy Jewell of California Giant Berry Farms. “We got a little bit of a late start, and that rain at the end of June knocked volume out. But the plants are still going to produce what they’re going to produce, and they’re healthy and strong. There’s definitely a lot of bloom on the plants right now, so that’s a good sign. I think we’re finally into that summer pattern. Volume will be steady.”
With volume coming on, Ms. O’Donnell said that the Strawberry Commission is ready to help retailers move strawberries with a variety of support materials, including point-of-purchase displays, handling guidelines and checklists, and a variety of brochures and posters. A new consumer website (www.californiastrawberries.com) has been launched with recipes, videos and nutritional information. The commission also has a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and apps for iPhone and Android smartphones.
Social media has paid off handsomely for the Commission. “We ventured into it and said, ‘Let’s just try it.’ We saw it was successful and said, ‘What else can we do to make it a little more successful?’ We increased incrementally. We didn’t do it overnight, we took on a little at a time — tried something here, a contest there. We’re willing to try things,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “People are looking for engagement and conversation, not always just for information. And what social media allows us to do is engage with consumers: ‘Here’s what our growers are about; here’s who grows your food. One of the things they care about most is you and that you have a good experience.’ And they really do."