By TIM HEARDEN
WATSONVILLE, Calif. - Strawberry production in the Golden State is growing ever stronger, as producers have turned out about 4 million trays more than they had at this point last year.
Overall, California's 40,192 acres of strawberry fields have produced more than 36.7 million trays so far in 2013, compared to the 32.6 million trays put out as of mid-April in 2012, California Strawberry Commission spokeswoman Carolyn O'Donnell said.
After a cold snap earlier this year slowed ripening, growers are being inundated with lots of fruit, O'Donnell said. Growers have sent more than 18.9 million pounds of berries to freezers - more than double the 8.6 million pounds of freezer volume at this point last year, she said.
The increases come as the traditional peak season for California strawberries has just begun to gear up.
"The peak is coming a little bit earlier" than usual, O'Donnell said. "Part of that had to do with the weather. It did warm up, so we had green fruit ripening down south earlier this season."
The growth continues a trajectory that has seen strawberry producers enjoy six record-breaking seasons in the past seven years even as many challenges face their industry.
Strawberries are a year-round fruit in California, as winter harvests move south with the sun. Typically from May until about July, all three of the state's major strawberry regions - around Watsonville, Santa Maria and Oxnard - are shipping berries. California produces 85 percent of the nation's strawberries.
This year's expected acreage marks a 6.5 percent increase over 2012, O'Donnell said. Growers keep planting more acres even as major uncertainties loom, including new groundwater regulations on the Central Coast and the phaseout of fumigants that have been industry staples for decades.
A report released last week by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation suggests growers should try to stop using methyl bromide and its numerous replacements, but acknowledges the industry will need to keep using fumigants for years to avoid a dip in revenue.
The report says berry growers need more economic support to transition to non-fumigant options, including grants or crop insurance.
In recent years, the strawberry commission has poured millions of dollars into university research to look at alternatives to fumigation, such as crop rotation, eliminating soil pathogens by using natural sources of carbon and sterilizing soil with steam. One project is looking at growing berries in peat, tree bark or other non-soil substances that are disease-free.
Additionally, O'Donnell has said many conventional growers have been adopting some organic practices and going fully organic in some of their acreages.
California Strawberry Commission: http://californiastrawberries.com/