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Sun and volume return to the California berry deal

During the week of March 6, temperatures in Southern California topped the 80 degree mark with clear skies and a bright sun. That meant sunbathers at the beach and strawberry plants popping with volume and size.

A wet February has slowed the early stages of the California strawberry deal and put it well behind an average year.  But the rain and the sun has the industry anticipating a strong mid-March and beyond, which should produce very good volume for the popular promotional periods that include Easter (April 16) and Mother’s Day (May 14).  Both of those holidays are a bit later in the calendar this year, which matches up very well with the later-than-usual volume.CalGiantrainphoto-2A wet February slowed the early stages of the California strawberry deal and put it well behind an average year. But the rain and the sunny start to March has the industry anticipating very good volume for the popular promotional periods that include Easter (April 16) and Mother’s Day (May 14).

Published by the California Strawberry Commission each week, “The Pink Sheet” illustrates this year’s timing quite graphically. For the week ending March 4, California sent about 400,000 flats of berries to market.  That is quite a bit below last year’s first week of March total of 900,000 flats of berries, and is not even in the same hemisphere of 2015 volume when about three million flats were put into commerce during the first week of March.

Jim Grabowski, director of marketing for Well-Pict Berries told The Produce News on March 9 that volume for his company is on a steep curve for the next three weeks.  By the end of March, he said volume should be heavy barring any more crazy rainstorms. “We can handle occasional rain just not six inches in three hours (like their Oxnard fields received during a February storm).”

Grabowski anticipates a fairly strong market through March but as supplies increase in April and move into what is traditionally the California strawberry industry’s peak shipping weeks in May and June, the price should fall.

The Well-Pict executive said there should be promotable volume by Easter and certainly by Mother’s Day.  He noted that the Easter pull would typically begin about 10 days before the holiday, which would mean the week of April 3.  By then Santa Maria should be in full production and Oxnard certainly will be.  However, with Florida and Mexico winding down, he just couldn’t predict that total volume will be at the “promotable” level.

Speaking specifically of Well-Pict’s non-California volume, Grabowski said it has been very strong this year from Florida but by the third full week of March the firm’s harvest crews in the Sunshine State will have passed the baton to their colleagues in the Golden State.  “We are up over last year in Florida, but we are about to transition to California,” he said on March 9.  “We have about one week left there.”

A look at the latest USDA Market News National Berry Report on March 9 illustrated the increasing volume from California.  In just the first three days of the March 6 week, volume was in the 650,000 flat range, meaning this week was almost certainly going to be the first one million-plus week of the season. The previous week, the 700,000 flat level was surpassed for only the second time this season.  By the end of March, weekly volume could easily surpass three million flats, which would be on par with 2016, but still only half of the weekly production in 2015.  

Watsonville is expected to get started by mid-April, which very well could put California’s production back on track.  In 2016, which also had some rain issues, weekly volume from California in April ranged from a low of 4.2 million flats to a high of 6.2 million flats.  In 2015, April’s weekly shipments ranged from 5.1 million to 7.25 million flats. For each of the past two seasons, the peak of the season is marked by weeks in which shipments are north of seven million flats. In 2015, that lofty number was reached during seven different weeks from April to early July.  Last season, seven million flats were shipped only five different weeks, though the peak week occurred the second week of May when more than eight million flats were shipped. In both years, May was the peak month with shipments being very close to 30 million flats.  

Grabowski of Well-Pict said acreage this year is about the same as last year so volume should reach the same lofty levels, barring more weather issues.

Meanwhile, Mexico and Florida have taken advantage of California’s weather-induced slow start.

By March 4, Florida had sent more than 21 million flats to the market while Mexico chipped in with 19.3 million this season. At that same point last year, the two regions were at 10.3 million and 11.8 million respectively. Crunching the numbers it means that in 2017 total shipments have almost doubled. And while California’s rise in production should coincide with a decrease from Florida and Mexico, during the week of March 6, both areas were still going strong. During the first three days of that week, Florida shipped more than 1.4 million flats while Mexico sent more than 900,000 to the U.S. market. It is a virtual certainty that total 2017 shipments from those two regions will far eclipse the 50 million cartons shipped each of the last two years.