California Strawberry Harvest On A Record Setting Pace

California strawberry farmers are harvesting their way toward another record crop. At least that is the projection of the U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics office. The April projection is for a 4 percent production increase from last year to more than 23 million hundredweight.

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TheCalifornia Strawberry Commission doesn’t disagree, but adds the caveat that it all depends on the weather. Acreage is projected to be almost 4 percent more than last year. The government report projects an average yield of 605 hundredweight per acre on the 39,000 planted acres of strawberries.

Carolyn O’ Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission says, "It really all depends on the weather. Thus far the weather has been great. All the growing regions are producing now, but the farmers in Orange and San Diego counties are getting toward the end of their peak production."

O’Donnell says growers set a weekly production record in early April. More than 6.6 million 9 to 10 pound trays of strawberries were picked in a single week. However, right after that came the heat and production declined to about 5 million trays a week. It has since rebounded some.

There seems to always be bumps in production because of weather, O’Donnell says. Temperatures along the coast in the 90’s and higher the third week of April slowed production. However, farmers had weather forecasts for hot weather and had crews pick ahead of the heat, which permitted them to keep the supply channels full. Consumers throughout the nation benefited with good supplies and competitive prices.

Strawberries don’t do well in hot weather, which is why the main growing regions of the state are along the coast where cooler temperatures usually prevail. There are new varieties that tolerate heat better and some acreage is devoted to strawberries in the Central Valley.

"This looks like a good production year, compared to the last planting. Quality of the strawberries is excellent," says Santa Cruz County strawberry grower Ed Ortega. "Weather for the nurseries and growers has been ideal."

Ortega says his crews are harvesting now, but peak production isn’t expected until June. His irrigation is from well water and water availability hasn’t been a concern. However, water availability could become an issue and growers are concerned about pumping restrictions being imposed some time in the future, he says.

Ventura County grower Ed Terry thinks his strawberry production will be about average.

"Production has been up and down. Temperatures in my fields got to 100 degrees for a short time in mid-April, which caused a setback, but it didn’t last long and normal production resumed," he says.

Terry was in the fresh market until about Mother’s Day. The remainder of his harvested strawberries will go to processors. He says the harvest for processors goes faster, as pickers slice the stems off and send the fruit to be made into jams and other processed foods. His plan is to end all harvest operations about July 1 and then prepare and plant fields for the fall season.

Terry is concerned about the lack of rain.

"We have well water for irrigation," he says. But the light rainfall has not cleansed the built-up salts from the soil as happens during wet years. That salt build up could result in reduced yields in the future. It highlights the need for a wet winter next year. In addition, lack of rain lowers the water table.

Darren Gee grows strawberries in the Santa Maria area about 11 months of the year. He has two different varieties on which he depends, a short-day variety, the Vantana, and a day-neutral variety, the Albino. This allows him to start harvesting strawberries in January and continue through November.

Gee says the Vantana variety started in January and will go to the fresh market until about Memorial Day, and then move into the processing market. The Albion started about the last week of March and will continue through November. His production has been about average thus far this year.

"Production was good until the April heat wave. Then it dropped by 30 percent. Some fields had real blistered fruit, which had to go to processing. Some blossoms were also burned," he says. "We really need a wet winter. My water is all from wells. However, the dry years have prevented the aquifer from recharging."

He doesn’t disagree that this could be another record strawberry production year, as additional acreage has been planted with strawberries.

California ranks first in the nation in strawberry production, harvesting 86 percent of fresh market strawberries. The fruit ranks eight on the top 10 California farm products list. Strawberry farmers produced a crop valued at $1,338,585,000 in 2007, the most recent year for which final numbers are available.

Monterey County is the leading strawberry producing county, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

About the writer: Ron Miller is a reporter for Ag Alert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Federation. This article was originally written for Ag Alert and is used here with permission.