As the spring and summer peak season wanes, strawberry production in California is holding its own even as workers must take precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.
As of July 25, more than 133.1 million flats of strawberries had been brought in from fields – an increase from the 125.2 million harvested at this point last year, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
The totals are behind the record-setting pace of 2018, when nearly 141.7 million crates had been filled by the end of July. But growers have slightly more acreage with which to try to catch up, as summer plantings for fall production were expected to reach 7,185 acres this year, up from 7,089 in 2019, the commission reported.
“Demand has remained strong so far this summer, perhaps in part because consumers may be more conscious about healthy eating, and recognize strawberries as a healthy choice,” CSC spokeswoman Carolyn O’Donnell said in an email.
Changes in consumer buying habits brought on by the virus have pushed prices upward. On July 27, a flat of eight 1-pound containers conventionally produced in any of the three prime growing regions – around Oxnard, Santa Maria and Watsonville – averaged $17, up from about $10 last summer, according to USDA statistics.
New COVID-19 procedures
The strong production numbers and improving prices come as COVID-19 has required growers to institute new procedures in the field to help maintain physical distancing and increased sanitation, O’Donnell said.
“The commission has been curating the best information as it became available to develop signage, information brochures, videos, and audio announcements for use on the farm to inform employees,” she said. All the materials are in Spanish and English, she said.
The panel has also aired Spanish-language radio and television announcements on the Central Coast to promote ways to stay healthy, both inside and outside of work, O’Donnell said.
“The commission will continue to develop training and information tools, and promotional efforts to disseminate these messages, over the coming months as we continue to receive updated information and specific guidance from public health and safety agencies.”
Harvests are keeping pace despite concerns that distancing requirements would make it more difficult to keep up, as strawberries have a brief window of ripeness in which they must be picked.
Over the past decade, higher-yielding varieties have enabled growers to achieve record production despite decreasing acres. While 2019 was expected to continue the trend, an unseasonable rainstorm in late spring followed by an early June heat wave disrupted production.
In all, strawberry producers statewide shipped 201.9 million trays in 2019, down from a record 224.5 million in 2018 and 206 million in 2017, according to the commission. Weather permitting, production levels in 2020 were expected to be higher because of the new varieties and slightly increased acreage.
Strawberries are a year-round fruit in California, with harvests moving south during the winter months. The state produces about 85 percent of the nation’s strawberries.