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Southern California strawberries weathering freeze, damage not severe

Contrary to some rumors that strawberries in California suffered extensive damage due to a cold snap in mid-January, most escaped damage and only isolated areas were affected, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

The reality is that the effects of the freeze were "hit and miss" and affected "isolated individuals," Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for commission, told The Produce News Jan. 22. It was "not mass destruction."

Some fruit was affected, and some individual growers who may have had fields at higher elevations "and had no frost protection" could have sustained considerable losses to fruit or blossoms already on the plants, she said. But for the industry, it is "not gloom and doom."

Craig Moriyama, who until recently was vice president of strawberry sales at Naturipe Growers Inc. in Salinas and has now moved over to the production side of the company, said that damage to Naturipe's Southern California strawberry fields was minor, with probably less than 25 percent damage to the fruit actually on the plants.

The freeze was not as bad as the one back in 2007, he said. By comparison, "it looks like there is actually minimal damage." The cold weather did cause some delays, but "with the nicer weather now, it is starting to recover quickly," he said Jan. 22.

The effect "seems like it was temporary," said Matt Kawamura, managing partner in Orange County Produce LLC in Irvine, CA. "It was spotty, depending on the fields. Definitely it held back production, but then this week, with the warm weather, we are getting so many more berries," he said Jan. 22.

There were some Southern California strawberry fields where it got "very cold" and showed "a lot more damage," Mr. Kawamura added. There may be "lingering effects" as well because of flowers on the plants that got damaged. But there were also many fields where "nothing happened at all. So it is really a mixed bag."

In Santa Maria, the freeze damage was much more serious, he said. "They pretty much lost everything that was on the plants. They got down to the mid-20s" and had "a lot of wind." But the plants themselves were not damaged.

In fact, frost "will never kill the plants," Mr. Kawamura said. "It actually invigorates them." It may delay the crop for a couple of weeks, but the plants "will come back with even a bigger push."

Some of the colder fields in Santa Maria had damage to blossoms as well, so "if you are in the cold area you will have a disruption 35 days from now. You will have a lot fewer berries" until the new fruit comes on.

But "there is a huge flush right now, and the industry is not ready" for that kind of volume, he said. "Between Florida and California, there are just way too many berries. I've never seen the price so low" at this time of year.

There were "just two nights of freezing temperatures" in the Southern California growing areas, according to Dan Crowley, sales manager at Well-Pict Inc. in Watsonville, CA. But temperatures were at or near freezing for nighttime lows for about eight days straight, with daytime temperatures in the mid-50s to low 60s.

Well-Pict ran its wind machines for up to 100 hours during that time to pull warm upper-level air down toward the ground and mix it with the colder air, in order to raise the field temperature a degree or two. In addition, drip irrigation was applied to add some above-freezing temperature to the root zone.

The plants had a lot of vegetative growth and not a lot of fruit set, Mr. Crowley said. Bloom stage is the most susceptible stage "for the crop to get hurt by the freeze, and there just wasn't much bloom out there."

Some bloom "got nipped," said Mr. Crowley, and some of the smaller green fruit "might have had some freeze scarring, but we are assessing maybe 10 or 12 percent of the volume" was affected for the short term.

For the longer term, "I don't think there has been much negative effect at all on the crop" other than a delay, which "pushed the crop back just a little bit."

The eight days of cold were followed by about eight consecutive days of warmer-than-normal temperatures, which caused a spike in production.

"This week we are being surprised by the additional volume," Mr. Crowley said Jan. 22, adding that he expected to see volume level off from late January through early February before resuming its usual seasonal ramp-up.

"In my opinion, we dodged the bullet," Mr. Crowley said.

A more severe cold snap in Santa Maria will delay the season's start there, "but that might not be a bad thing," so the two districts "don't run into each other."

When Oxnard and Santa Maria have "distinctive peaks, it makes for a better berry deal," he added.