Strawberry crop could be headed for a new record
By Ching Lee
If California strawberry production continues at its current pace, it could be headed for a record year, according to the latest reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"So far this year, we are ahead of where we were this time in 2011, and for the moment anyhow, we're ahead of where we were this time in 2010, which had been a record-breaking year," said Carolyn O'Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission.
Since 50 percent of the state's strawberries are harvested after June 1, the multi-season crop still has months of production before growers start picking their summer-planted crop in the fall, and much can happen between now and then, O'Donnell noted.
She also pointed out that strawberry acreage increased this year by 2.8 percent from 2011 to 38,373 acres, "so it's not completely a surprise" that production would be up too. Acreage for the previous two years had been stable at around 37,600.
"(A record) is possible," she said. "If we have more acreage planted, certainly we expect more yield, but it also will depend on how the weather treats us."
Thanks to a relatively dry spring, strawberry grower Bill Reiman of Oxnard said he has had a "steady production season" so far this year without any major disruptions from rain, which hampered production last year.
Daren Gee, who grows strawberries in Santa Maria, said even with more strawberries on the market, he was pleased that during the month of May, "the country was able to consume so many strawberries" that prices remained good for growers.
Peak season for California strawberry production is usually between April and June, when all of the growing districts are in full production. Orange County and San Diego finish first in May, while the Oxnard district is currently winding down, harvesting mostly berries for the processing and frozen markets. Farms in the Santa Maria district will continue to harvest fresh-market berries through December, but growers there and in Oxnard are also getting their ground ready for their summer plantings, which will produce strawberries in the fall.
The Watsonville/Salinas growing district has the most fall-planted acreage and produces berries through November. Growers planted 15,377 acres this year, a 4.9 percent increase from 2011, according to the commission.
Ed Kelly, a grower in Watsonville, is currently ramping up his summer production. Rain in May did cause some delay, he noted, but his strawberry varieties also take longer to grow.
"We had a very slow start this year, so our yields are still a little bit behind, but we seem to be having better production right now," he said. "Last year our peak (production) wasn't until the latter part of July. I'm not sure when it will be this year, but we are increasing in volume every week."
Favorable growing weather helped strawberry crops in Florida and Mexico, which resulted in larger overall supplies in the U.S., the USDA reported. But O'Donnell said California strawberries do not really compete with those two growing regions because the state's volumes are at their lowest from November to February, when strawberries from Mexico and Florida hit the market.
A bigger competition is other summer fruits, particularly cherries, stone fruit and melons, Gee said. Although demand for strawberries remained strong through Memorial Day, Reiman noted, the market has since softened.
"The Fourth of July is definitely watermelon season, so strawberries sort of lose shelf space in the store," Gee said.
Ventura County grower Ed Terry said pricing for both fresh market and processing strawberries has been about the same as last year, but his cost of production has gone up about 6 percent due to increased rents and regulatory burdens.
Because of the lack of rain, he said his crops had fewer fungal problems this year, but both he and Reiman reported an increase in mites, which dry, hot weather tends to bring on, Reiman said. Lamenting the loss of fumigation materials such as methyl bromide, Gee said he's beginning to see more soil-borne diseases that could affect the size and volume of his crop later in the season.
Of greater concern right now is the lack of available employees, Gee said, especially for growers who are harvesting fruit for processing. With harvest for fresh market strawberries going strong in the Watsonville/Salinas district, workers tend to move to those fields where there's more production and money to be made. There is also competition for workers from other crops, including other fruits and vegetables, he noted.
"Right now, it's labor's market," Gee said.
Terry described the labor situation as "unbelievably tight," particularly in the last several weeks. His operation is currently 30 percent to 40 percent short on help, he said, so he's been shuffling his crews from field to field to where there's greater need.
"We may end up having to chop some crops a couple of weeks earlier, get rid of some of the more marginal fields and pick only the really good fields," he said.
Kelly said the current labor shortage has not affected his operation yet, but it could affect a number of farms in his region over the next couple of months as more fields are harvested. While 75 percent of his employees have been with him for 10 to 20 years or longer, he said, some of the newer workers will jump to other farms if they feel there are better opportunities elsewhere.
Reiman said he's in "really good shape" in terms of finding labor and recently added about 80 employees to his operation. He pointed out that since he grows strawberries and raspberries, he's able to provide steady work for them most of the year, and that helps to keep them on the farm.
"If you have them and you have the work, it seems like you're able to hang on to them," he said.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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