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Gem-Pack growing its year-round strawberry program

As a third-generation grower and shipper of Orange County Produce, based in Irvine, CA, Matt Kawamura has a pulse on the California strawberry market and the dynamics that are affecting the entire strawberry industry. The company recently found itself to be the last remaining shipper of California strawberries in Orange County because of land development and regulations.

Gem-Pack-label “A while back, we had the big idea to be the locally grown guy, which we tried to be, but as ground, water and labor have become harder and harder, it’s become a lot more difficult,” Kawamura said. “The small regional farmer is having a really hard time, especially in the south. You don’t see them at all in Oxnard. It’s a changing time with the big guys getting bigger and the small guys getting smaller.”

That’s why last year Kawamura decided to launch Gem-Pack Berries, a new label and organization to sell the company’s year-round production of strawberries, run by a fourth-generation family member — his son Paul Kawamura — and Rosa Melchor. The partnership also includes A.G. Kawamura, Mike Etchandy and the Fujishige family, as well as the Gonzalez family in Watsonville.

“We’ve had to get bigger so we expanded into Ventura County, Watsonville, Mexico, and we are shipping out of Florida and Santa Maria, so really we’re shipping berries out of every berry district all over the U.S. market,” Kawamura said. “We’ve gotten bigger so our sales have been up, but I wouldn’t say it’s easier to be a farmer in California. Last year was pretty tough for every district.”

A lot of rain in 2017 hurt some of the volume in the south, while the north had heavy production, which caused prices to not be as high, and with increased costs, that presented a challenge.

As the calendar turned to 2018, Kawamura was optimistic, as early California strawberries are traditionally the best quality and the product coming out of Orange County now is already high quality.

“For stems, we are probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, producers for Valentine’s Day in the country, and that will be coming out right at the same time and we’re getting prepared for that,” Kawamura said. “The plants look very healthy and very good. The fields look great. The rain hasn’t been too much, so we’re hoping and expecting to have a really good production year.”

Industry wise, he noted that variety is becoming more and more important, and having the right variety for the right area is an extremely important part of what everybody is trying to do.

“Everyone is planting varieties with a little more disease resistance right now,” Kawamura said. “With less fumigation allowed to us from the regulatory burdens, we’ve had to go through breeding for varieties more resistant to disease because that’s something that has really hurt over the last three or four years.”

Gem-Pack Berries runs programs with its customers on packaging options, so it’s willing to package in a partner’s label and has several of its own, including a locally grown label, a Mexico label and a regular one.

“For our company, strawberries are just like Amazon. It’s becoming more about logistics and supply and convenience to the customer, and we’re hoping to be that guy that people realize they can rely on for a good quality and steady supply,” Kawamura said. “Those are two really hard things to do in this business. You have to be willing to spend a lot of money on the ground, and that’s extremely risky right now.”

In 2018, the company expects to expand its acreage in Watsonville and will continue growing its strawberry production as best it can, according to Kawamura.