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Calif. strawberries see excellent promotional opportunities

The California strawberry industry had record production in 2012 and is looking at an acreage increase of around 6.5 percent this year, with the clear potential, weather permitting, of setting another volume record.

Cold weather in January caused some delays in the harvest during the early part of the season, and with an early Easter this year, some shippers question whether 013-CalStraw-Crop-Strawberrvolume will ramp up fast enough to fully satisfy demand for the Easter pull, particularly in East Coast markets.

But a week or two after Easter California strawberry volume is expected to be abundant, peaking in the Oxnard district and moving in steady progression toward peak production in Santa Maria and then Watsonville. Excellent promotional opportunities are anticipated from April, through the summer and into the fall months, shippers say.

Planted acreage for 2013 is projected to be 40,192 acres, an increase of a little more than 2,400 from 2012, according to Carolyn O'Donnell, marketing director for the California Strawberry Commission. The figure is only an approximation because it includes summer plantings for fall harvest, mainly in Santa Maria and Oxnard, that have not yet gone in the ground. But even if the summer plantings remain unchanged from last year, total planted acreage in the state will still be up.

According to the commission's 2013 acreage survey, Orange County's fall-planted acreage for winter, spring and summer production is down this year nearly 7 percent at 1,348 acres, representing just 3.8 percent of the state total.

Oxnard acreage is up 16 percent at 10,277 acres, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the state total.

Santa Maria's acreage is up 9.6 percent at 9,191 acres, representing 26 percent of the state total.

The Watsonville/Salinas district is down just slightly at 14,601 acres, but that still represents 41.1 percent of the state total.

Summer plantings are projected to total 4,648 acres statewide, an increase of 25 percent.

Organic strawberry acreage in the state is up this year by 37 percent for the fall plantings, at 2,360 acres. Nearly 73 percent of organic acreage is in Watsonville/Salinas.

Proprietary varieties now account for nearly 56 percent of planted strawberry acreage in California. Among university varieties, Albion is the clear leader at 23.6 percent of the acreage, followed by San Andreas at 7.4 percent.

Although the season was off to a slow start, "there definitely is going to be fruit for Easter," said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville. "We are tracking slightly behind because of the [January] frost, but it hasn't caused any long term damage." Once days get longer and nights warm up a little, "the fruit is going to be there almost instantly" in the southern districts, she said. By April, "we are definitely going to be in full stride."

Dan Crowley, sales manager at Well-Pict Inc. in Watsonville, said he sees ample opportunities for promotions the entire month of April. Although cold temperatures have "held this crop back" on the front end, he said, "when it comes on, it is going to come on with a vengeance."

Because cool winter weather "set the crop back" this year, it is "probably not the best [year] to have an early Easter," said Stuart Gilfenbain, who handles sales at Eclipse Berry Farms LLC, in Los Angeles. But he expected Oxnard volume to peak in April and Santa Maria, with the other districts to follow.

Louis Ivanovich, vice president of West Lake Fresh, a Watsonville-based brokerage specializing in strawberries, said that he expects covering Eastern demand for Easter will be a struggle, but by mid-April there should be "phenomenal" volume and excellent volume coming out of the state, bringing abundant promotional opportunities.