The trends of more production with fewer acreage are still holding for California’s strawberry industry, which uses less than 1 percent of the state’s farmland but produces its fourth most valuable crop.
A midyear acreage report from the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) portends more of the same for growers – an increase in fruit production on decreasing planted acreage.
Growers said in a survey they planted 25,868 acres statewide for winter, spring and summer production in 2019, and that this year’s berry acreage for fall picking totals 7,089. Those numbers are up slightly from a prediction last December of 25,704 and 6,010, respectively, for 2019.
But over the past three years, overall acreage has declined by 12 percent while total volume for each year has shattered production. Production in 2018 was affected by a winter freeze, but the industry was assured of another record for the year by the last week of October.
In all, 224.5 million flats were produced statewide in 2018, up from 206 million the previous year, according to the commission.
“The next few years will be really interesting to see with the newer varieties coming on with higher yields,” commission spokeswoman Carolyn O’Donnell says. With midyear projections, “we look at what land is available and how the weather is holding up,” she says.
Spring rains put production way behind last year’s pace, but it’s trying to catch up. Pickers had filled nearly 143 million flats as of mid-August, down from 160.1 million as of the same period last year, the CSC reports.
Fall production could help. The 7,089 acres planted for fall is an increase from the 3,719 fall acres planted in 2012, as growers seek to boost the value of their berries by offering them in the latter half of the year.
“The supply is lower, so they’ll make a little more money,” O’Donnell says.
The acreage drop reflects the increasing difficulty of producing strawberries amid persistent labor shortages and the elimination of methyl bromide. So growers are gravitating to more prolific varieties developed by the University of California Cooperative Extension, other agencies and private companies.
Among the more popular new varieties are the University of California-developed Monterey and San Andreas strawberries, both of which are “day-neutral” varieties that are more tolerant of summer heat and more resistant to diseases.
Crews were picking a proprietary variety on a recent morning on Peter Navarro’s farm near Watsonville, Calif.
MORE WITH LESS
“We’ve been looking at varieties that are resistant to soil diseases so we can produce more on less acreage,” says Navarro, who currently grows on 50 acres. “It’s just so expensive to grow a crop.”
The unseasonable rainstorm that hit much of California in late May caused no shortage of headaches, he tells Western Farm Press. For one thing, the rain came just as berries were sizing up for the peak season, he says.
“Then on top of that we had a heat wave” in early June, adds Navarro, a California Strawberry Commission member.
The rain also interfered with pollination, causing what’s known as crooked fruit, he says.
“We were throwing away a lot of fruit,” he says. “It helped the market.”
Strawberries have gained in popularity in recent years, with the fruit leading in volume and value in the berry category, which is the top-selling category in the produce department, the commission asserts.
Peak-season prices are better this year than in 2018, Navarro notes. On Aug. 19, a flat of eight 1-pound containers conventionally produced in any of the three prime growing regions – around Oxnard, Santa Maria and Watsonville – averaged $10, according to USDA statistics.
That’s up from an average of $7 per conventional flat from Santa Maria and $7.50 for berries from Watsonville on Oct. 20, 2018.
Organic strawberries fetch double the price this summer that they did a year ago. A medium-size flat averages $16, up from $8 a year ago, according to the USDA.
“Last year was really tough,” he says. “I don’t know how anybody was profitable last year.