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Strawberry yield sags after boom

California falters after five record-setting harvests


Capital Press

COTTONWOOD, Calif. -- In Lo Saelee's rented strawberry field here, the fruit is ripe, red and sweet and the on-farm vendor booth is open for business.

"It's pretty good," Saelee said of this year's crop, which he started selling about two weeks ago.

He and other vendors say the late winter rains didn't spoil the quality of the berries, which he expects to pick and sell into mid-July.

Stands like Saelee's are cropping up in many places around the state, signaling that the summer strawberry season is kicking into high gear.

The March rains and lingering chilly temperatures caused a slow start in some areas, but "things are definitely starting to pick up now," said Carolyn O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission.

Strawberry production in the Golden State has enjoyed five straight record-setting years, but harvests this year have so far lagged behind the last two years, O'Donnell said.

By this time of year in 2009, some 57 million trays were harvested. Last year, there were 55 million trays produced by early May. So far this year, about 50 million trays have come out of the fields.

"We're not quite there yet," O'Donnell said. "We're all dependent on the weather. If we continue to have great weather through the summer, there's a great chance we'll be back up to where we were last year."

At most times of the year, someone is picking strawberries somewhere in California. The harvest essentially follows the sun, wintering in southern California and moving north as the year progresses. By late April or early May, however, all three of California's most prominent strawberry regions -- around Watsonville, Santa Maria and Oxnard -- ship berries, creating the summer peak season, O'Donnell said.

Though the start has been slow, growers have far from given up hope for another record-breaking year.


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