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California strawberry acreage decline plateaus

After a three-year trend of declining acreage, the California Strawberry Commission Acreage Survey for 2017 showed that, at least for this year, the trend for decreased acreage has abated, with an estimate of a bit more than 36,000, on par with 2016 numbers.

The acreage report is published two times annually with acreage information voluntarily provided by California strawberry growers and shippers. The first “Acreage Survey” for the 2017 harvest year includes acres that were planted in the fall of 2016 as well as the forecast of acreage that will be planted in the summer of 2017 for fall production. For 2017, the commission reports a total of 36,141 acres, with 30,074 planted last fall and an estimated 6,067 slated for summer planting. As a point of comparison, last year, fall plantings totaled 29,318 acres with a then estimate of 6,721 for summer planting.

Matt Kawamura of Orange County Produce in Irvine, CA, said though the declining trend has been stemmed for this year, it is still a difficult proposition to grow strawberries in California. He said that government regulations within the state put California producers at a disadvantage in competition with strawberries originating elsewhere — most notably Mexico and Florida.

In 2013, the CSC January acreage report revealed 35,670 acres of fall plantings and 5,146 summer plantings for a total of 40,816 acres. In 2014, total acreage dropped to just under 39,000 and in 2015, the total was 38,100. Last year saw another decline of about 5 percent to 36,039. This year represents a negligible gain, but it’s a gain nonetheless.

In its report about acreage, CSC noted that while acreage has declined in recent years production has actually remained stable or increased partially due to “industry investment into new varieties,” which has led to higher yields per acre. The commission also pointed out that, of course, weather plays a big role in the production numbers. In fact, 2016 production levels were among the highest on record for both production per acre and total volume.

In 2016, total shipments from California topped 196 million trays, representing about 3.4 percent gain over the previous year even with 5 percent fewer acres.

The commission report went on to state, “Additionally, with mild weather, new varieties are capable of higher levels of fall production — effectively creating new market opportunities.”

This year has not gotten off to a robust start because of the several rain storms that have delivered lots of water to California during the first six weeks of the season. However, it is still running ahead of 2016 though behind 2015. By mid-January, total California shipments were in the 750,000 tray range compared to half that in 2016, but 1.2 million in 2015. However, shipments from both Mexico and Florida were well ahead of the past two years. By mid-January, Florida shippers had sent almost 3 million trays to market while Mexico topped 3.5 million. In 2016, by mid-January those two competing points of origin had only delivered a total of 2.5 million trays last year and about 3.8 million the year before.

With California’s rain subsiding during the week of Jan. 23, growers were hopeful that the effects of the weather would be short lived and strong supplies would return by early to mid-February.

In its acreage report, CSC also tackled the lingering issues Kawamura talked about that could impact future production. “Long-term forecasts continue to express concern about rising labor and regulatory costs in California,” it said, noting that California farmers are utilizing the H2A program and continuing investment in innovative research and education programs to meet these challenges.

On a positive front, the commission noted that California growers continue to be the leading production region in the world and is expected to supply more than 79 percent of the volume consumed in the United States in 2017. “Moreover, strawberries remain the volume and value leader in the berry category, the top-selling category in the produce department,” the report concluded.