Because of the earliness of Easter and the lateness of the strawberry harvest, it is going to be a struggle for the California strawberry industry to cover the East Coast trade for Easter this year, said Louis Ivanovich, vice president of West Lake Fresh, a Watsonville, CA-based brokerage specializing in strawberries.
But by mid-April, he said, “there is going to be absolutely phenomenal volume and quality, and people can promote with abandon from probably the 15th of April to July 15. There is going to be a very substantial crop, a very steady production out there,” and people can promote to their hearts’ content.
“We need to [promote],” he added. “We need to figure out interesting ways to keep berries on the front page of ads for food stores” and to get foodservice operators “cranked up” in order to move the large crop that is anticipated.
But it is already happening, he said. “They are doing it.” By the time volume cranks up, he expects the trade to be on board with vigorous promotions.
The April peak will come largely from the Oxnard district, with Santa Maria following. Watsonville will start to harvest some fruit as early as late March, “but it will be probably the third week of May when Watsonville will really start ringing the bell.”
There is not the overlap among the districts that there was at one time. “The varietal shifts in the Salinas and Watsonville areas have pushed more toward a later start,” Mr. Ivanovich said. “Years ago, when they were growing varieties like the Pajaro, there was a substantial amount of fruit being [harvested] in April and May.” But since there is now “such a substantial volume coming out of the Oxnard area — and they need to go into May and June to try to pay for their programs down there — Watsonville is trying not to step on top of that deal. They are trying to make it a gradual stair step as that area winds down and they wind up.”
Watsonville has “a much wider window in which to recoup growing costs,” he said. “They are going typically to the first week of November and sometimes longer.”
Great-tasting varieties have given the strawberry industry a boost recently, Mr. Ivanovich said. “We are just very fortunate to have a lot of good eating varieties,” notably the Albion. “It is good flavor that brings people back” to buy more strawberries.
Seven or eight years ago, there were a lot of varieties in production that “had nice eye appeal but didn’t quite have the eating experience that they have with the varieties now,” he said. “Across the board, with proprietary and university varieties, we are seeing a return to a more traditional deep berry color,” not only externally but internally as well, and more importantly a return to great flavor.
For the 2013 season, “our recommendation” is for retailers to begin providing a value to the customer of heavier packages from mid-April on, he said. “They want to start getting into two pounders, three pounders, four pounders. I think there is a great case for that, because we are going to have the volume to do it — the price points are going to be such that [marketers] can promote those to their clients, and people are really going to see great customer satisfaction when they are getting a nice-sized container and they can do something special.”