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Strawberry shipments ahead of last year, but acreage down

California strawberry shipments as of mid-March were running significantly ahead of the same date a year ago, the difference being primarily due to good growing weather this year in contrast to cold and wet weather a year ago.

Whether that trend would hold for the season remains to be seen, but some growers told The Produce News that it did appear that strawberry fields in the Watsonville-Salinas district, which had yet to begin shipping in any appreciable numbers, did look to be a couple of weeks ahead of where they were 16-CalStraw-Crop-Well-PictA proprietary variety of California strawberries ready for harvest. (Photo courtesy of Well-Pict Inc.)at the same time in 2013, so barring weather disruptions it appeared likely that the Watsonville-Salinas deal would at least start out sooner and stronger than last year.

Planted acreage for the year is down nearly 8 percent from 2013, with most of the decline being in the Oxnard district, which is down 18 percent, according to the California Strawberry Commission’s 2014 Acreage Survey.

Those figures include nearly 5,800 acres of summer plantings for fall harvest, which were not yet planted and were, therefore, only projections.

According to Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the commission, last year’s acreage represented a significant jump up over the several years prior and the reduced acreage for 2014 is closer to the 2012 figure.

That the decline in acreage does not necessarily mean there will be a corresponding decline in production is evidenced by the fact that the 2012 season had record production, while volume in 2013 was down despite the higher acreage.

By the numbers, 2014 strawberry acreage in Orange and San Diego counties is reported at 1,173 acres, down nearly 13 percent from 2013. Oxnard is at 8,433 acres, down from 19,271 the prior year. Santa Maria is virtually unchanged at 8,894 acres. Watsonville-Salinas is at 14,665 acres, down three percent.

The season availability in Orange and San Diego counties is mainly January through May, according to the commission. The main varieties are Radiance and San Andreas.

In Oxnard, the season runs from September through June. Proprietary varieties dominate, followed by San Andreas.

In Santa Maria, the season runs March through December, with the main varieties being San Andreas, proprietary varieties and Monterey.

The Watsonville-Salinas season typically runs April through November with proprietary varieties, Albion and Monterey being the principal varieties grown.

One of the driest winters on record, continuing the worst drought in a century in California, helped boost strawberry volume in Oxnard in January and February but raised serious concerns about the long-term effects of water shortages and build-up of salinity in the soil. Several inches of rain in the growing districts the end of February caused harvesting disruptions of up to a week, with some crop loss, but was regarded by growers as a welcome blessing. The rain helped leach salts from the soil and, combined with snow in the Sierra Mountains, helped marginally with water storage in the state, but was insufficient to break the drought.

There remains a concern of “getting enough water” for optimum production through the season, said Louis Ivanovich, vice president of West Lake Fresh, a Watsonville, CA-based strawberry brokerage.

Another concern, he said, was having enough labor for peak volume.

If Mother Nature cooperates, especially during peak promotion periods, “we feel that it is going to be a substantial deal here — that we are going to have good volume,” Ivanovich said.

So far, “sizing is great on the fruit,” he said March 7. “We are hitting a lot of the crown fruit right now,” with many 14-count-per-pound berries.

The varieties being grown by the industry now are much more flavorful “across the board” than “what we had to work with 10 years ago,” Ivanovich said. Now, “with the Albion and moving into some of the other varieties that we have to work with during the summer, it is just a treat.”

Prolonged wintry weather on the East Coast and in the Midwest has been a deterrent to strawberry demand, according to several shippers. However, Stuart Gilfenbain, a salesman at Eclipse Berry Farms LLC in Los Angeles said March 7 he expected that situation to improve shortly.  The Oxnard district should be “in full swing” for the Easter pull, with Santa Maria “right behind,” he said. “There will be a lot of fruit moving.”

“All the districts look to be about two weeks earlier than an average year and probably almost a month earlier than last year,” which was late, said Charlie Staka, director of sales at CBS Farms LLC in Watsonville.

California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville was looking for “some significant volume” out of Oxnard and Santa Maria by late March and early April, “with Watsonville kicking in” soon thereafter. “Ideally, we want all three districts in production for the Easter and Mother’s Day pull,” said Cindy Jewell, marketing director, March 6.

With the amount of volume coming, she emphasized the importance of building momentum early and having displays in place before the holidays arrive.