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Florida strawberry growers bracing for cold; CA production on the rise

By
Tim Linden

The last weekend of January is expected to see temperatures flirting with freezing in Florida’s strawberry production area near Plant City. Combined with rain during the Jan. 23-29 week, strawberry production is expected to be tight heading into the Valentine’s Day pull.

Robert Wilhelm of Bova Fresh LLC., Boca Raton, FL, told The Produce News that he expects to have a difficult time filling orders for Valentine’s Day sales, in which strawberries often play a leading role. Discussing the situation on Jan. 25, he said it was currently raining so he expected relatively few berries to be picked over the next few days. Then he expects the weekend cold and the lack of sun this week to delay the coloring of the berries, which will result in fewer Florida berries for sale during the first week of February as Valentine’s Day orders come into play.

Wilhelm believes Florida will start ramping up volume on Valentine’s Day and throughout the week of Feb. 14. Though Florida is no match for California on an annual basis when it comes to strawberry production, the state’s growers usually hold the edge in February and March. During that time frame, California’s production will typically climb steadily with one to two million trays per week until late March when it starts climbing very quickly, peaking above eight million trays. Both Florida and Mexico will have multiple weeks exceeding 2.5 million trays and typically peaking above three million trays per week during those two late winter months. 

In 2021 and 2020, California’s total volume topped 210 million trays while Florida punched in with more than 29 million trays each season. Mexico was more erratic with almost 60 million trays imported to the United States in 2021 and about 40 million the year before.

There are indications that California will have more strawberries during its peak spring through summer season this year than it did last year. The California Strawberry Commission has revealed that the acreage survey conducted each year shows that fall plantings, which reach peak production in April through June, are up more than 6 percent to more than 30,000 acres. The commission’s website notes that cooler than normal spring weather in 2021 reduced yields, but there is an expectation that will not occur again in 2022. Consequently, the increased acreage could combine with increased yields to produce record weekly volumes.

Chris Christian, senior vice president of the California Strawberry Commission said the peak weeks should have California growers sending between nine and 10 million trays of berries to market. She added that the peak weeks might start a week or two earlier this year, which could be the last week in April. If the norm prevails, the elongated peak will last through May and into June.

Though the CSC executive would not predict record total shipments for 2022, she did allow that it is possible. California growers set their record in 2018 when they sent about 224 million trays to the marketplace. Last year’s volume reached 212 million trays, which is a about 5 percent below that 2018 record. Given the 6 percent increase in acreage, better growing conditions and the typical yield increase that growers get almost every year, that 224 million tray figure appears to be within reach.

Christian indicated that there is no trepidation accompanying that potential. “We saw very strong demand in 2020 (during the initial coronavirus-inspired change in buying habits) and consumption habits have remained high,” she said. “So far this year we have had outstanding quality and strong demand.”

Anthony Galindo of Bobalu Berries, Oxnard, CA, agreed with that assessment. He told The Produce News that Bobalu began picking fruit in California right before Christmas and quality in the early season has been very good. “Knock on wood, we should have a good Valentine’s Day,” he said on Jan. 24. “We should be picking up each week, with pretty good volume the first week of February.”

He predicted that with California, Florida and Mexico all expecting volume increases over the next few weeks, there could be some promotional opportunities for Valentine’s Day, with many more shortly thereafter. “Right now, we are picking a ton of strawberries, including a lot of stem berries,” which is typically a very good Valentine’s Day seller.

But Galindo did offer the usual caveat. “We can’t control Mother Nature” and he also noted that demand is excellent with the space between supply and demand being “pretty snug.” He opined that the market price, which was $14-16 on conventional fruit should remain solid until at least the Valentine’s Day pull is over.

He also offered that fields on the east side of Santa Maria, furthest away from the ocean, began being picked this week. “West side fields should be ready in two to three weeks,” he added.

Galindo said the only negative thus far to the start of the California strawberry deal is the very high truck rates that must be paid. “We are seeing (cross-country) rates at $10,00 to $12,000,” he said. “Typically for this time of year, they would be in the high 6’s ($6000) or low 7’s ($7000). I see no end in sight to these high rates.”

Another shipper with production in several regions weighing in on strawberry supplies was Jim Grabowski, director of marketing for Well•Pict Berries, headquartered in Watsonville. “The strawberry supply trajectory is looking up,” he said. “Heavier volumes should be starting about the beginning of February and build up from that point forward. It's hard to project volume at this time but with good weather it should at least equal if not surpass last year.”

Concerning Valentine’s Day, Grabowski is hopeful that good supplies will be available. “We are predicting a good volume of long stem strawberries being available. While the organic crop of strawberries will also be available, most long stem berries will have been conventionally grown,” he added.

As the season progresses, Grabowski expects the normal pattern of promotion to follow. He added that March looks to be a good month for promotions as weekly volumes pick up.

He concurred with Christian of CSC on the demand/supply relationship. “Demand for conventionally grown berries and organically grown berries both remain strong. Demand for organic produce in general has been growing at a steady rate the last five to six years with even heavier growth occurring during these pandemic times,” Grabowski said. “I expect demand for organic berries to remain strong for this year and years to come.”

 

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