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California rains expected to disrupt strawberry shipments throughout winter

Because of four straight years of drought, many have forgotten that buying strawberries in the winter from California comes with potential supply gaps.  

When it rains it is difficult to get into the fields, and depending upon the severity of the storm, crop damage can occur. However, strawberry plants are typically prolific producers so a few days of good weather can create good supplies once again. This roller coaster ride is a fairly typical depiction of the January to March California strawberry supply situation.StrawberryStages-copy

“There are a number of new retail buyers who started in the last four years that have never had to deal with that,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms, based in Watsonville, CA.  

For the past four years, California has had very little rain in the first quarter and supply disruptions have been few and far between. This year has been much different. “People have gotten spoiled,” said Louis Ivanovich of West Lake Fresh, in Watsonville, CA.  “This is truly a more traditional start.”

Ivanovich said for the past several years, the early volume should have been looked at as a “bonus” rather than status quo.

In mid- to late January, Stuart Gilfenbain of Eclipse Berry Farms, based in Oxnard, CA, was surveying the weekly supply report that the California Strawberry Commission disseminates and said this year is entirely different than the past few.

“In California we are 60 percent of what we were doing last year at this time,” he said on Jan. 22. “Florida has had a crop failure and their production is 50 percent down and Mexico is off by one-third.”

This triple whammy is creating a demand exceeds supply situation that Gilfenbain said is very rare. On that day, he said the market was in the mid-$20s, which is about $10 per flat greater than it was a year ago.  

Strawberries are a good seller at retail all year round but they are especially popular for holiday occasions.  The first one on the calendar is Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 and that will be followed by the Easter push, which will come early this year because Easter is on March 27. Gilfenbain expects volume to continue to increase but he said it should still be fairly strong for Valentine’s Day.

“I’m already getting calls and it’s more than three weeks away,” he said. “We should have a decent amount of stem berries, but probably not enough.”

He believes the market could still be in the mid-$20s for Easter, depending of course on the California weather in late January and early February. “Mexico is picking up,” he said. “They are crossing an average of 160,000 to 180,000 (trays) this week (Jan. 18-22) and that should increase at least 20 percent next week.”

Jewel said experts are predicting that the above average rainfall in California from El Nino is going to last into April. “It is going to be a very interesting February and March,” she said.

Adding to the early supply issues has been a trend in the past few years that has seen acreage move away from the Oxnard district in Southern California, which is the earliest producing district. Gilfenbain said for 2016, Oxnard has just a bit over 6,800 acres of strawberries.  That compares unfavorably close to the 10,300 acres planted just three years ago. Like most of the other berry grower-shipper, Eclipse has planted more in the Santa Maria district over the last few years, which is further north along the California coast.

Jewell said it is a varietal issue. Oxnard needs a good short-day strawberry variety and there aren’t any good ones right now. “We have to go to where we can make money,” she said. “We’re just not getting the yields in Oxnard.”

Cal Giant is attempting to fill its early in the year demand with increased production in Mexico and Florida.  

Overall the number of acres planted in California for harvest this year is down about 12 percent.

Matt Kawamura of Orange County Produce, based in Irvine, CA, indicated that while this year’s lack of early volume is weather related, it is also the result of the decreased acreage in the southern half of the state and may be a harbinger of things to come.

He said there are some promising new varieties, such as Fronteras, that seemingly are going to do very well in the Oxnard area but they do produce a bit later than some of the varieties that were popular in years past.

Giant Food Stores introduces new fresh meal kits

Giant Food Stores has launched its new fresh meal kit program in 12 greater Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley stores. Each kit features pre-measured fresh ingredients to make two servings of the selected meal as well as step-by-step instructions. Giant's fresh meal kits will be featured in the produce, meat or deli sections.giant

“Our customers are busy and these new fresh meal kits are another innovative way we are helping them to save time and eat well by getting a delicious and convenient home-cooked meal on the table,” Erik Keptner, senior vice president of sales, merchandising and marketing, said in a press release.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, they are also a great option to prepare a special dinner. The fresh meal kits, which will vary by season, are all ready to prepare and cook in 35 minutes or less.

Varieties currently include:

  • Pan seared chicken breast with creamy mushroom sauce, garlic roasted green beans and seasoned wild rice
  • Baked chicken parmesan with rosemary Yukon gold potato wedges and fresh ratatouille
  • Mini Italian style meatloaf with couscous and fresh vegetables
  • Peppercorn steak with creamy blue cheese sauce, chive mashed potatoes, and garlic roasted broccoli and cauliflower
  • Pan seared boneless pork chops with apple and honey mustard sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes

The cost for one kit, which serves two people, is $14.99 and two kits to serve four people is $24.99. In addition to being available at the 12 stores, Peapod customers in greater Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley can also order the kits for delivery.

Mark Seay: From Super Bowl record book to Stater Bros.’ PR department

staterIn celebration of Super Bowl 50, Stater Bros. family member and former NFL wide receiver Mark Seay presented the National Football League’s golden football to San Bernardino High School as part of the NFL’s Super Bowl High School Honor Roll. The presentation took place Tuesday, Jan. 26, during an assembly in the school’s auditorium.stareMark Seay

The Super Bowl High School Honor Roll recognizes high schools and communities that have contributed to Super Bowl history by presenting them with a commemorative Wilson-produced golden football for every player or head coach who has appeared in a Super Bowl. San Bernardino High School joins more than 2,000 high schools to be recognized across the country and around the globe. Additionally, the NFL Foundation will provide the schools with a new character education curriculum and the opportunity to apply for grants of up to $5,000 to help support and grow their football programs.

“Having Mark Seay present San Bernardino High School with the golden football demonstrates to our students that attending SBHS is something to be proud of,” Antoinette Fulcher-Gutierrez, principal of San Bernardino High School, said in a press release.   

“When our students see alumni reach their goals, they can then start envisioning themselves doing it as well. This is making hope happen. We’re also excited at the opportunity to receive a scholarship from the NFL Foundation which would allow us to purchase new uniforms, increasing the pride we hold in our hearts for Cardinal City,” Fulcher-Gutierrez added.

Seay played football as a wide receiver for the San Bernardino High Cardinal’s from 1982–85 and went on to play in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers. In 1995, he played for the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX and entered the Super Bowl record book by catching the first two-point conversion pass in Super Bowl history.   

Upon retiring from football in 1999, Seay joined Stater Bros.’ public relations department as the company’s community relations representative. In this position, he delivered his personal message of goal-setting and the importance of education. More importantly, Seay served as a role model to over 60,000 students emphasizing that pursuing one’s dreams despite peer-pressure and adversity can be achieved.    

"I’m honored to be a part of the Super Bowl 50 celebration by giving back to my alma mater, San Bernardino High School,” said Seay.  “I’ve been blessed and very fortunate to be a part of NFL history and the  Stater Bros. family; two long-standing organizations committed to the tradition of giving back to the community,” he added.

Super avocado sales in 2015 portend very bright future

As of this writing, Super Bowl 2016 — and another Avocados from Mexico commercial — is right around the corner. While the game is surely being anticipated by more people, all segments in the avocado industry are excited about what the ad might do for this year’s sales.

Although it’s impossible to directly credit AFM’s Super Bowl ad in 2015 for the great year that avocados had in the United States, it is seemingly also impossible to ignore its impact.IMG 0628Since 2010, the avocado industry has registered an average increase of 11 percent growth, which was greatly eclipsed in 2015, which saw a total of 2.14 billion pounds sold in the United States — a 16 percent increase over the 1.85 billion pounds sold in 2014.

Emiliano Escobedo, executive director of the Hass Avocado Board, said the numbers don’t lie and avocado sales in 2015 in the United States were “phenomenal” against virtually any measurement. And those increases started with a good sales month in January 2015 and continued to be strong in the period immediately after the Super Bowl in February, which is typically not a great avocado month.

“Ten million more pounds of avocados were sold in February 2015 vs. February 2014,” he said. “Raising awareness is a great way to expand sales.”

The 30-second spot — and AFM’s social media promotions before, during and after the commercial ran — garnered a lot of publicity for the avocados. Many published critiques of the Super Bowl ads gave high marks to the avocado ad for creativity and originality.

Escobedo said that whatever the reason avocado sales in the United States in 2015 showed very impressive growth. “We just finished wrapping up the year,” he said in late January, “and the growth [in sales] was just phenomenal.”Emiliano-EscobedoEmiliano Escobedo

HAB has its finger on the pulse of the total industry like no other organization because it collects assessments from every handler on a per-pound basis, which enables it and the other avocado commodity groups to fund their programs. The more than $53 million collected in 2015 is spread among the point-of-origin committees and HAB. HAB receives 15 percent of the total assessment while each committee receives the other 85 percent of the funds collected specifically from the avocados produced in the region they represent.

In 2015, a total of 2.14 billion pounds of avocados were sold in the United States — a 16 percent increase over the 1.85 billion pounds sold in 2014. “That means 293 million more pounds were sold in 2015 vs. 2014,” Escobedo said.

Since 2010, the industry has registered an average increase of 11 percent growth. To have that greatly eclipsed in 2015 is mind-boggling.  The increase is even more impressive considering Peru sent fewer avocados to the United States in 2015 and California’s crop was also smaller than the year before.  

Mexico, Escobedo said, accounted for virtually 100 percent of the increase — and then some. “There was a decline from Peru but a massive surge from Mexico. Mexico shipped 437 million more pounds in 2015. That’s 33 percent growth,” he said.

Now a month into 2016, HAB has a conservative estimate of an increase of 5 percent to 2.25 billion pounds for this year, but it would be no surprise if double-digit growth continues. There are factors that indicate the growth will be much closer to the five-year average than this year’s single-digit prediction.

In the first place, California has a much larger crop. It is expected to be at least 100 million pounds greater than 2015, which in itself is more than a 4 percent total increase in avocado volume.  

Escobedo said Peru is one of the wild cards. After a difficult year with regard to pricing for its imports in 2014, Peruvian avocado shippers were very conservative last year, leading to the decrease in volume.  They also had some other outlets for their fruit.

Another unknown factor in 2016 is when and if growers in the Mexican state of Jalisco will be granted access to the U.S. market.

“I hate to speculate,” said Escobedo, noting that for the last year many have been predicting that the market would be opened sooner rather than later. But it is a foregone conclusion that it will happen at some point. Jalisco doesn’t have a huge amount of production, but it does have enough to make a difference.  

Escobedo said, however, that the largest impact on U.S. consumption in 2016 might be the global market. There were widespread reports in January that Australian avocados were being sold for as much as $14 apiece because of demand in that market. Escobedo said worldwide demand is on the rise, and in the long run he believes there will be sufficient world supply to meet that demand, as there are many agricultural production areas around the world gearing up their avocado volume. But in any given time period, world supplies can be in a demand-exceeds-supply situation.  

What is hard to deny, however, is that it is going to be another good year for avocado producers, and the Super Bowl ad on Feb. 7 is figuratively, if not literally, kicking off the season.

Three companies restricted from operating in the produce industry

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has imposed sanctions on three produce businesses for failure to pay reparation awards issued under the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act.

The following businesses and individuals are currently restricted from operating in the produce industry:

  • Da Vinci Carriers Inc., operating out of Garden Grove, CA, for failing to pay a $23,704 award in favor of an Ohio seller. As of the issuance date of the reparation order, John H. Thompson was listed as the officer, director and major stockholder of the business.

  • Wichita Food Mart Inc., operating out of Wichita Falls, TX, for failing to pay a $4,545 award in favor of a Texas seller. As of the issuance date of the reparation order, Darrell Taylor was listed as the officer, director and major stockholder of the business

  • Hart Produce Co. Inc., operating out of Hart, MI, for failing to pay a $500 award in favor of a Florida seller. As of the issuance date of the reparation order, Jerry A. Brandel and Arthur H. Brandel were listed as the officers, directors and major stockholders of the business.

In the past three years, the USDA resolved approximately 3,700 PACA claims involving more than $66 million. Its experts also assisted more than 7,100 callers with issues valued at approximately $100 million.