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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.