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Warm, dry weather brings strawberry crop on early, but ongoing drought a concern

Winter strawberries out of Southern California are normally an up-and-down, on-again-off-again proposition. There is generally some moderate production from mid-December through February before volume starts to build for the more reliable spring deal. But growers expect that there will ordinarily be some cold spells that slow down production and rain that disrupts the harvest from time to time during that period.

05-SoCalStraw-Crop-StMariaWarm, dry winter weather has brought the Southern California strawberry crop on faster than normal, setting up for strong production in March and April. (Photo courtesy of California Giant Berry Farms)Last year was an extreme example, as exceptionally cold winter weather caused what has been described by some as a disastrous season for strawberry growers in Oxnard, possibly a factor in an acreage reduction for the district this year.

But this winter has been very different. Although the first week of December was cold, and there was some frost damage in some inland locations, the weather since has been ideal for strawberry growth. In fact, in most cases, the early December chill only strengthened and invigorated the plants. Since then, temperatures have ranged from normal to well above normal. In Oxnard, for example, several days in mid-January reached 85 degrees, a full 20 degrees above normal. That is bringing crops on earlier than usual.

January weather was “I think … the warmest on record,” said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations for Naturipe Berry Growers in Salinas, CA, Feb. 8. “Everything is pushed ahead,” with peak volume expected to be “earlier this year” if good weather continues. “The crop is setting up really good for March and April right now, from what we see out there.”

Drought conditions in California, said by some to be the worst in a century, are a serious concern in many regards, but as of mid-February, the crops had not suffered rain damage so far this season.

On Feb. 6, Oxnard saw first measurable rainfall since early November, but it was only a quarter of an inch and caused no damage to strawberries, sources said. Nor was it enough to help much.  Santa Maria has been nearly as dry, but Watsonville received about two inches of rainfall over a four-day period Feb. 6-9. The AccuWeather long-range forecast Feb. 11 showed moderate to light amounts of rain off and on through March in all districts, with temperatures around normal to a little above normal.

With warm temperatures and no interruptions from inclement weather, Oxnard shipments as of Feb. 9 stood at 14.6 million trays for the year, 3.8 million more than for the same period the year before, according to United States  Department of Agriculture figures, the reduced acreage notwithstanding. Shipments were also up from 2012. In Santa Maria, some growers were already beginning to pick a few berries, about four weeks earlier than usual.

Still, growers said in late January and early February that they did not expect to have as much volume for Valentine’s Day as the market would like. Valentine’s Day demand is so strong that probably that threshold has never been tested.

While that gives a short-term boost to production by not disrupting the harvest, the potential long-term effects are causing growers great concern.

“What comes with the drought is some things people don’t think about,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission. “In Southern California, they are harvesting already, so they are not so much concerned about plant establishment, but they usually count on a little bit of free water from Mother Nature. Not getting that means they are paying more for irrigation right now.”

Growers also rely upon natural rainfall to leach salts out of the soil, something surface water and ground water irrigation don’t do, and strawberry plants are sensitive to salinity.

Longer-term concerns are a lowering of the water table and, near the coast, increased saltwater intrusion and even sand intrusion into the wells.

“Also interesting,” said O’Donnell, “and I heard this from a couple of growers in Ventura County,” is that unless there is occasional rainfall the plants get dusty, and that provides a favorable environment for mites. As a result, growers are “having the additional costs” of releasing predatory wasps into their fields earlier than they normally would “to keep the mites under control.”

Growers are “working on ways to address those challenges,” she said.

The drought is “very definitely a problem,” said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA. “The growers are concerned. It is obviously very unusual not to have any rain at all” through the winter. “We are severely behind [in rainfall] which starts to factor into well water being a concern” with salt and sand intrusion into the wells. The dry weather is also “bringing pests into the field” more than is normal for the time of year, so growers are “having to apply some products” to battle the pests that they don’t usually have to use so early. Since there are limits to how much of those products can be used on a field, there is concern about whether they will be available to use later in the spring when they are typically needed.

There is “a lot of uncertainty at this point,” she said. “We are in uncharted territory here.”

California Giant normally hopes to go until June out of Oxnard with the strawberry harvest, but with the water uncertainty, “there is concern the season may be shorter than typical,” Jewell said.

In Santa Maria, California Giant typically starts “walking the fields” in February and picking up volume in March, Jewell said Jan. 23. This year, the company had already picked its first strawberries in Santa Maria.

For CBS Farms LLC in Watsonville, the Oxnard harvest started earlier than normal with good quality, according to Charlie Staka, director of sales. He expected volume to continue to increase through February and reach full production by the first or second week of March.

Stuart Gilfenbain, who is in sales at Eclipse Berry Farms LLC in Los Angeles, said the Oxnard crop is off to a good start and he expects better volume than last year due to “perfect growing conditions” in contrast to last year’s “very cold” weather.

“Right now, everything is A-OK,” said Louis Ivanovich, vice president of West Lake Fresh, a Watsonville-based strawberry brokerage, Jan. 23. The plants were looking good, he noted. But “if we don’t get some rain here during the season … it is certainly going to be a challenge for these growers to try to keep their plants at peak performance.” That could be even more of a problem for the summer months “as we get up here into the northern districts.”

Strawberry plants are “very sensitive to the quality of the water that is used,” he said. Unless there is some rain to help “get the salts out of the soil” and also to “dilute the salinity” in the aquifers, “it can hurt production.”

For the last few years, labor has been the No. 1 issue on growers’ minds, he said. This year, water is No. 1 and labor has dropped to the No. 2 concern.

“Normally we don’t pray for rain during the strawberry season,” Ivanovich said. But the situation is “getting very desperate.”