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California strawberries share peak curve with COVID-19

babobaboiajoeifjMuch to the chagrin of the California berry industry, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and the production of strawberries appear to be moving along the same peak curve.

Both had limited roles in January, slowly increased in February, saw significant gains in March and are looking at reaching peak in the April-May time frame. “It’s a little ironic that our peaks are coming at the same time,” said Anthony Gallino, vice president of sales for Bobalu Berry Farms in Oxnard, CA.

The longtime strawberry industry expert is looking forward to the time in the not-too-distant future when their trajectories are no longer similar. Gallino said the coronavirus has caused instability in the strawberry market and appears to be creating a “new norm” just as it is with almost everything else.

Speaking to The Produce News on April 8, a few days before Easter, Gallino said, “If it was a normal Easter, the (f.o.b.) market price would be in the low to mid-teens and we would be on promotion all over the country.” Instead, the price at the time he was talking was $8-$10 per tray, but could move up or down without much notice. “We’ve seen nothing but peaks and valleys,” he said. “There is panic buying one week and the next week everyone is holding their orders. And then we see panic buying again. You get good orders for two days and radio silence for the next two days. I guess it is the assemblance of the new norm.”

He added: “Our retail partners are experiencing the same thing in their stores.” Gallino said it is difficult for retailers to keep their produce shelves stocked as consumers hoard household items such as toilet paper. There are only so many workers in the markets doing what they can to fill empty shelves so that other items — sometimes produce items — are not able to get the proper attention.

He said that retail pricing of strawberries across the country has not reflected the declining f.o.b. price. “Some of our retail partners are doing an awesome job of keeping the shelves stocked and offering a price so that consumers enjoy the benefits of strawberries, but others are lagging behind,” he said without naming names.

Gallino added that strawberries are an excellent choice for consumers looking for healthy alternatives. “Strawberries are high in vitamin C, high in anti-oxidants. They make an excellent option. We need to get them priced right.”

While over the long term, Gallino is hopeful that peak strawberry production will last longer than the peak in coronavirus cases, he did express concern about next week. “I’m worried about next week — the week after Easter. That could be a down week and we are going to have lots of volume,” he said. “We really have to get back to old school selling and move this crop.”

The veteran lamented that on both sides of the transaction — both shippers and buyers — there are a lot of new people in the industry that have not been through turbulent times. Strawberries have been one of the stars of the supermarket produce department for many years. Many retailers have 52-week programs with ads built in on a very regular basis… often every week or every other week. COVID-19 has thrown the industry a curveball and some old-fashioned selling may be the answer. Afterall, the industry is going to have the volume as the plants appear to be impervious to the new virus, and keep on churning out blooms and fruit.

“Oxnard is in the middle of its peak,” he said. “And then Santa Maria will take over as we move toward the summer. And then Watsonville will see its production increase.”

Another issue has been the drop in foodservice business. The Bobalu executive said typically that sector consumes about 20-25 percent of strawberry sales. “Retailers have scooped up some of that business but we are concerned about that coming back,” he said.

Gallino did express optimism that the calendar would work in the industry’s favor this year. With its April 12 date, Easter is right in the middle of its potential timing… not early, not late. “We will have about two-and-a-half weeks (after Easter) until we get the traditional Mother’s Day pull. Hopefully, everybody can work together, and we can give consumers a great product at a good price for both them and the growers.”

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