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Santa Cruz Berry Farming makes a splash as new kid in the berry patch

After 16 years with another company, Fritz Koontz figured he might have picked up enough know-how to make a go with his own operation. In January, the Santa Cruz Berry Farming Co. opened its doors in Watsonville, CA, and now heads into its first fall season growing commercial and organic berries, including some of its own proprietary cultivars.

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Left to Right : Caesar Villalobos, Fritz Koontz, Armando Ramirez, Alan Tagami, Paul Foster, Joe Urabe of Santa Cruz Berry Farming Co.

Mr. Koontz and strawberry expert Dr. Beth Crandall have been partners in Kanaka Peak Research LLC for the past decade. Dr. Crandall is developing short-day, early cultivars for the southern California district and day-neutral cultivars with even production patterns for northern California. Seedling fields, advance selection trials and grower trials unfold in real-world settings alongside commercial operations.

“It’s very rewarding. I have a really good group of people around me,” Mr. Koontz told The Produce News in late July. “We’ve just had a spectacular year so far and everything’s very good. But we just had a meeting yesterday and kind of a reality check that, hey, we’ve still got the rest of the year to go, and this is the time of year when you really separate the men from the boys. The days are long. You just have to really focus on things because the quality doesn’t come to you naturally right now. The beginning part of the year, everything just comes. The quality is good and you really don’t have to force it. This time of year is when you have to do all the little things to ensure the quality. The plants are past their peak, you’re trying to rejuvenate everything for the fall and keep your fields clean. There are a lot of details, and that’s where you can’t let your guard down. It’s been very nice to be able to be on your own [as a company], but also it’s a humbling business. You have to really mind all your P’s and Q’s to stay on top of it.”

Mr. Koontz’s Watsonville fields are about 40 percent organic and 60 percent conventional acreage.

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“We do have proprietary varieties in the organics as well as the conventional, but it’s not the majority of our acreage. A lot of it’s solely experimental,” Mr. Koontz said. “We do have commercial-size acreage in the organic that is proprietary. And we do have one variety, possibly two, that we think may actually end up begin dominant. One variety — it only has a number right now, it doesn’t have a name — we think that could make up a very large percentage of our organic crop, with good production, good appearance, color and very good flavor. We’ve only got a few beds of it that we’re looking at experimentally, but in the nursery we think in two years we’ll probably have quite a bit of proprietary acreage. Dr. Crandall is very good at what she does. Basically I’m just along for the ride.”

While the company is still bringing in “a little bit” of a crop from Salinas, “What we have up here in Watsonville is going to carry us through the fall. We do have a lot of fall varieties and most of our crop is pretty late. We’re actually just basically coming into the first part of our peak right now, so we have a lot of fruit for August, September and October, and then we also have some acreage in Santa Maria that was summer-planted so we’re going to have strong volume coming all the way through December,” Mr. Koontz said.