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Supply gap sends strawberry prices skyward

California strawberry production has basically become a year-round proposition, but the early-December period still has sketchy supplies, which has led to a significant demand-exceeds-supply situation and skyrocketing prices for the current time period.

The market should ease up a bit over the next several weeks, but a strong market should take grower-shippers into the new-crop season.

On Dec. 5, the U.S. Federal State Market News Service was reporting flat prices in the $25 range, with California, Mexico and Florida each chipping in with minimal supplies.

“Amazing prices, but no fruit,” said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for Watsonville, CA-based California Giant Berry Farms.

She said that a handful of Watsonville growers were trying to scratch out a few more cartons to end their 2012 season, while Southern California growers, as well as those in Mexico and Florida, were just starting to pick a few berries off of their new plantings. The typical lack of supplies at this time of year created the hot market situation.

“There will be more supplies by Christmas,” Ms. Jewell said, but indicated that it will be after the first of the year before any California growers are seeing good volume from their new crop.

Both Florida and Mexico should have significant supplies sooner than that, but they probably won’t be sufficient to meet demand, assuring a strong market for at least the next month.

Of greater potential concern was the torrential downpours that rocked Northern California during the first few days of December, with some areas getting more than 10 inches of rain in a 48-hour period. There was a possibility that the rain could have affected the planting of the new crop in the Watsonville area. November is when virtually all the plants that will be picked in 2013 are planted.

“The timing of the rain probably couldn’t have been better,” Ms. Jewell said. “I think everyone got their last acres planted last week, so all the rain did was give those new plants a good watering.”

The rain also hit the coastal regions of Southern California, stretching from northern San Diego County to Santa Maria, where the plants were much further along. Those are the districts that will be providing California strawberries to the country for the next several months.

By all accounts, it was a bit early to tell if the rains did any damage at all, but the consensus is that any issues would be short-lived. At this time of year, rain is expected and a heavy downfall can affect flowering but no one knew of any acreage that had been wiped out, or any that needed to be replanted.

In mid-December, the California Strawberry Commission was expected to release its annual report detailing the number of acres planted for the 2013 season. Ms. Jewell said that while everyone always anxiously awaits the publishing of that report, industry scuttlebutt is that acreage is fairly similar to this past year.

“We are not expecting a big swing in either direction,” she said.