WATSONVILLE, Calif. — After several years of modest declines in acreage and production, California’s strawberry industry appears to be stabilizing, just as China opened its doors to the berries.
Growers expect to plant 36,141 acres of strawberries this year 2017, up slightly from the 36,038 acres planted statewide last year, according to a California Strawberry Commission survey.
The survey comes as the state’s production returned to its record-setting ways in 2016, as growers filled more than 196.4 million flats, the commission reported. Production vaulted over the nearly 194.8 million flats produced in 2013, when growers enjoyed their seventh record-breaking season in the previous eight years.
Industry representatives see the rebound as good news for growers, as global demand for strawberries is already increasing and new market access to China portends even more exports, said Chris Christian, the strawberry panel’s senior vice president.
“It’s kind of nice to see it leveling off after a couple of years of declining acreage,” Christian said. “The varieties we’re seeing now are much higher yielding, and everyone sees this as a good opportunity to take advantage of the good demand.”
Per-person consumption of strawberries in the U.S. has been increasing over the last two decades, reaching a record at 7.9 pounds in 2013, according to the USDA-funded Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
California’s exports have been decreasing with production, as shipments totaled 279.2 million pounds in 2015 compared to nearly 331 million pounds in 2013, according to the commission’s latest annual exports report.
But exports could ramp up again with access to China, as that nation’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine has set up a pest-detection protocol to begin accepting California berries after 11 years of negotiations with the USDA.
“Only a couple of very small shipments have gone over so far, but we expect within a couple of years the China market in the summer months to be a significant opportunity,” Christian said. “In China, there aren’t any domestically produced strawberries in the summer months.”
Strawberry acreage in California had been on a downward trend from 40,816 in 2013, and production suffered a couple of years of declines, to 192 million 8-pound flats in 2014 and 190 million in 2015, the commission reported.
But growers have been switching to new higher-yielding varieties and doing more summer planting for fall production, which enabled last year’s yields to zoom to another record after a slow start caused by last winter’s rains.
Summer plantings for fall and winter harvest have increased from 3,719 acres in 2012 to 6,721 acres in 2016. Farms expect to plant 6,067 acres this summer, according to the survey.
“That’s good news for consumers, because there’ll be a lot more California strawberries available in the latter half of the year,” Christian said.
For 2017, California will continue as the leading production region in the world, supplying more than 79 percent of the strawberries consumed in the U.S., the commission predicts. Strawberries remain the volume and value leader in the berry category, which is the top-selling category in the produce department, the panel asserts.
The one concern for growers is rising labor and regulatory costs in California, as laws will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 and institute the 8-hour work day and 40-hour week in agriculture.
To meet the challenges, farmers are using the H2A program for workers while the industry continues research into mechanizing at least some of the tasks in the harvest.