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For a variety of reasons, West Lake Fresh, a Watsonville, CA-based brokerage specializing in strawberries, is optimistic about the prospects for the 2013 season, but there are a couple of caveats — labor availability and truck availability.

“Our biggest concerns are pretty much labor availability at peak times and, this year in particular, availability of an adequate amount of carriers to haul the product,” said Vice President Louis Ivanovich.

The truck transportation situation is of particular concern “here in California” because of a tightening of regulations on trucking by the California Air Resources Board, Mr. Ivanovich told The Produce News Jan. 24. Since the beginning of the year, CARB has been “aggressively checking carriers for their emissions on their reefers,” for example. “So some trucks that would ordinarily have serviced us out here are reluctant to come into the state.”

WESTLAKE FRESH 01-09 001Sam Gabriel, Caleb Randall, Sandra Malatesa and Louis Ivanovich of West Lake Fresh. (Photo courtesy of West Lake Fresh)On the labor side, “the growers are spending a lot of effort on trying to make the most of the labor force they have,” he said. The Southern California growers are “fortunate in that in their time frame there are not a lot of competing areas in the state yet that are up and running. They are one of the earliest” commodities in the state to need labor crews for the harvest, “so they don’t have as big an issue on labor. But it becomes more of an issue as we move up into Santa Maria and Watsonville.” By that time, other produce commodities in the state are competing for field hands to harvest their crops.

“Even within the berry category itself, bush berries can cannibalize labor from the strawberry industry” during heavy production times, “because a lot of workers prefer to go and stand erect in the bush berries as opposed to having to bend over in the field to pick strawberries.”

Apart from those two concerns, other things bode well for the berry category this year, Mr. Ivanovich said. One is a “very strong demand” for berries for the processed products industry, which “will help provide a price floor.” That will allow growers to continue harvesting in the southern districts, for example, “as we get later into the season” and later districts are in production. Even into May and beyond, when the berries “might not be fancy enough to stay up with some of the Watsonville or Santa Maria offerings” in the fresh market, growers will still be able “to get a very livable price for their product going to process. We have people that will pick well into the middle of July out of the deep south” to meet processor demand.

Another boost for the Southern California growers this year comes from the adverse effect that weather has had on other produce commodities, particularly in Yuma. “We are enthused about this void that has been created by the freeze in Yuma,” Mr. Ivonovich said. “It gives retailers a great opportunity that I think they are going to grasp onto and really play the berry card.” With space to be filled, the retailers can go with berries “and have an attractive price point and bring some sunshine into the produce section.”

Retailers can augment the berry category with bush berries as well, giving “a little breadth to the berry patch this time of year,” he said. “There has been a good supply of Mexican blackberries and the quality has been good, so [blackberries and strawberries] have been able to help each other.” As domestic raspberry and blueberry production picks up in California, “that will be something exciting to add to it.”

As a brokerage company for strawberries, “we physically put people on the ground” both on the West Coast “from Baja up through the Watsonville deals” and also in Florida, Mr. Ivanovich said. “Our people are giving us information in real time on the product we are selecting for our customers and the opportunities that are available. We are also getting product from Central Mexico, but our main emphasis is on the West Coast and Florida deals.”

Wherever West Lake’s customers are, he said, “we try to coordinate freight, if necessary, or try to minimize the amount of time on the road the product has. For a customer in Eastern Canada, for example, “instead of taking product from McAllen [TX] and running it to California” and then loading it on an eastbound truck, “we try to put it in the most logical spot” to minimize transportation time and costs.

During the Watsonville and Salinas season, “when we are shipping our own vegetable products up here in Watsonville,” West Lake also offers consolidation services, using local carriers to bring product “to one cooler, so it is ready to go for the line haul to where it is ultimately needed.”

“In the Salinas-Watsonville deal up here, we are a shipper of green beans and Italian squash that we have been doing for many, many years,” he said. However, “berries are 95 percent of what we do.”

The company has “good resources,” he said, “and we have good shipper partners.” It is challenging for the shippers “trying to keep up with the myriad of packaging options that are out there now and the special requests of retail for different packs and getting everybody on trace back and all these different initiatives that are out there. It is a learning process, but the industry is pretty nimble and they are doing it.”