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California strawberry crop has potential for another record-setting harvest

The Southern California strawberry harvest typically starts around mid-December each year, but just about anyone in the California strawberry industry who has production in the state’s southern districts will tell you that production during the winter months seldom proceeds without some form or another of weather interruption. Some years are better than others, but growers pretty much expect that at some point, or several points, between December and the end of February or perhaps the middle of March, the harvest will be affected in one way or another by some form of weather event, be it rain, wind or cold.

That has been the case this year. Several days of freezing or near-freezing temperatures about mid-January caused light to moderate damage to fruit on the plants in a few locations. It also nipped some blossoms, which was expected to cause a gapping in production from those fields a few weeks down the road.

003A strawberry field in Oxnard in January of this year. January weather has caused both dips and spikes in early production, but Southern California strawberry growers were hoping for strong volume by the Easter pull and expect abundant promotional opportunities throughout the month of April.Ironically, several days of unseasonably warm temperatures immediately followed the cold spell and brought on an unexpected flush of fruit, causing prices to drop temporarily to levels seldom seen at that point in the season. As of late January, opinions varied as to how much fruit would be available for the Valentine’s Day pull.

Even so, volume for the first three weeks in January, at about 1.2 million trays, was fairly typical, down from last year’s 1.5 million trays for the same period but well above 2011 “when we had really cold weather at this time” and shipped only about 260,000 trays during the three week period,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, marketing director for the California Strawberry Commission.

Importantly, whether volume is above or below normal during the winter months, it is only a small percentage of what the state will produce from spring through fall, and therefore generally has little bearing on total production for the year. Furthermore, the cold temperatures were not damaging to the plants themselves but actually invigorated them, which could lead to either increased production or increased vegetative growth, depending on the variety, according to industry sources.

The state’s strawberry production has been trending upward, and in 2012, “we did indeed break a record again. We had over 190 million trays,” said Ms. O’Donnell Jan. 28. “The previous year, we had almost 178 million.” The difference was largely due to “much better weather in 2012.”

For 2013, total volume will again be weather dependent, “but our acreage is up,” she said. That means that given ideal weather during peak periods, there is the potential for yet another record year.

The state is expected to have a projected total of more than 40,000 acres of strawberries planted this year, up about 6 percent from 2012. Some of that acreage will be summer plantings, which, of course, have not yet been planted. Therefore, “we won’t have a final number until August,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

The acreage growth is mainly in Oxnard and Santa Maria.

Not only increased acreage but also newer varieties are contributing to the continuing upward trend in California’s strawberry production. “We’ve got varieties that are producing more per acre,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

The Albion variety is starting to decrease in popularity and is being replaced by newer varieties such as San Andreas and Monterey. In the southern districts, “we also saw an uptick in Benicia, which is a short day variety,” she said.

Proprietary varieties are also on the increase, and there has been some increased planting in Southern California of a conical-shaped Florida variety called Radiance as well. It is not planted in big numbers, but the 436 acres planted for the 2013 harvest was more than double the previous year.

Dan Crowley, sales manager at Well-Pict Inc. in Watsonville, CA, told The Produce News Jan. 22 that an estimated a loss in its Oxnard fields of 10 or 12 percent of the fruit or blossoms currently on the plants at the time of the freeze. “We just went in and cleaned the plants off,” he said. That was followed by about eight days of warmer-than-normal temperatures which “spiked the production” during the latter part of January.

In Santa Maria, temperatures were colder and the plants not as far along, so the main effect was to delay the start of the harvest, Mr. Crowley explained. That “might not be a bad thing,” as it will help create “distinctive peaks” in the production in each district.

He said he expects “a very explosive crop” from about mid-March through April “with some historic yield numbers, in my opinion, from the southern district.”

With an early Easter this year, “you will see the first big numbers catch that Easter promotion,” and the month following will “be very prolific for us. So we will get out there with our trading partners and let them know it is time to pin your ears back and run and promote each and every week.”

The early Easter this year “makes things interesting,” said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville.

“We are looking at Easter really as the launching point, hopefully, for a good strong April” with “multiple districts producing berries all at the same time.”

The early Easter “gives us an opportunity to maybe get that prime display space early and hold it through the month of April,” she said.