Abundant supply lowers retail prices, USDA says
By TIM HEARDEN
As the traditional peak season for California strawberries begins to gear up, production levels in the state are well ahead of last year's pace.
As of April 21, the Golden State's roughly 500 strawberry farms had picked and shipped nearly 39.6 million trays -- well above the 29.1 million trays that had been produced at this time last year, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
"We are ahead of last year," CSC spokeswoman Carolyn O'Donnell said. "Again, that doesn't mean a whole lot of anything until the end of the year. But there were 6.9 million trays harvested last week, so that definitely means we're entering the peak season."
Strawberries are picked somewhere in California year-round, but harvests ramp up in all three of the state's most prolific growing regions -- around Watsonville, Santa Maria and Oxnard -- in the spring and early summer.
More roadside stands are starting to open around the state, as a plentiful spring supply has resulted from farmers planting more acreage last fall, the California Farm Bureau Federation noted.
Abundant supplies of strawberries in California and Florida have combined with favorable growing weather in Mexico to push prices lower, the USDA reports. Retail prices per 12-ounce dry pint in February averaged $2.04, down from $2.42 a year earlier, the USDA's Economic Research Service reported in its March 30 Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook.
California, which produces 85 percent of the nation's strawberries, set production records in five straight years before the streak was snapped last year. The more than 178.2 million trays picked and shipped last year fell short of the 2010 mark of 181 million trays produced.
Warm weather this month has caused many crops in the state to flourish, although recurrent spring rains like those expected in many areas of California this week could complicate strawberry growers' effort to set another record.
Large amounts of warm rain can cause ripe berries to become moldy and waterlogged, O'Donnell said.
"As always, we're dependent on the weather," she said. "I think the growers would have liked to have seen a little more rain, and now we seem to be getting it. It's better than no rain at all, but we're about to have all areas in production at the same time. That's what makes us have the peak season, and the rain's going to delay that a little bit."
California Strawberry Commission: http://www.calstrawberry.com/default.asp
USDA Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/FTS/2012/03Mar/FTS351.pdf