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Strawberry growers maximizing output on reduced acreage

The California Strawberry Commission reported that acreage for 2018 continues a trend of growth in production on decreasing planted acreage, as the last few years have seen a 6 percent increase in volume on 13 percent decrease in land. Most of the acreage is shifting to the highest yielding varieties.

University of California varieties represent 59 percent of the state’s acreage, while proprietary varieties represent 38.6 percent. Last year, California fresh strawberry exports represented 11.1 percent of the state’s fresh crop and 9.7 percent of frozen production.

Early projections from the commission are that volumes for 2018 will equal or surpass last year, with acreage of 33,791, 11.8 percent of which is organic.

Orange County has seen almost a 50 percent decrease in strawberry acreage since last year, with Oxnard falling 15.8 percent and Santa Maria 3.4 percent.

Matt Kawamura of Gem-Pack Berries, based in Irvine, CA, noted that early California strawberries have looked strong, with healthy plants and fields abundant. Rain hasn’t affected the crops like last year, and he expects a solid production year, with maybe the best to come out of the area in the last few years.

The reality for California growers is that most big shippers are relying more on Mexico so that they can offer a year-round supply to their customers. With so many challenges in California, including lack of land, water and labor, plus regulations about fumigation, it’s not as easy as it once was for a grower to be successful.

“In California, to be a success, you have to be a good farmer and you have to have good ranches. That’s the only way,” Kawamura said. “Marketing is getting tougher and the biggest problem we have is freight. No one saw these prices coming — $10,000 to the East Coast. The cost of selling berries now is causing a burden on the farm, which hurts the farmer.”

Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms, a Watsonville-based grower-shipper of strawberries, said one topic people in the California strawberry industry are buzzing about involves transportation and the new regulations affecting the Electronic Logging Device mandate, which is intended to help create a safer work environment for drivers, and make it easier and faster to accurately track, manage and share records of duty status data.

Many in the industry feel that retailers could be doing more to encourage customers to buy California strawberries.

Jewell said the way to sell more is to keep displays stocked with fresh strawberries at all times.

“We also encourage two sizes of packaging to appeal to different shoppers — families like the two-pound clamshell, while singles or couples prefer the one-pound version,” she said. “Also, it is important to keep berries refrigerated since one hour out of refrigeration can result in the loss of one full day of shelf life. This is an important point since fresh strawberries only have about a 10-day life from data of harvest.”