Strawberries in demand for Valentine's Day as California rains persist
Demand is high for Florida strawberries as Valentine's Day approaches and rain hampers production in California.
Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director of the California Strawberry Commission, said cooler temperatures and rain set the crop up well for a great spring, but in the short term the wet weather has caused some issues.
“The rain has been widespread throughout the growing areas in California, resulting in some losses in quality due the rain,” O’Donnell said Feb. 7. “The supplies are limited, and more rain is expected over the next week.”
Morgan Maitoza, marketing coordinator for Watsonville, Calif.-based California Giant Berry Farms, said Feb. 8 that the Santa Maria and Oxnard growing regions have both gotten 3-4 inches of rain in the last week. Supply has been very tight as a result.
Jim Grabowski, director of marketing for Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict, also reported significant difficulties with production there.
"The California strawberry deal has been a disaster lately," Grabowski said. "Rain and cold weather has pretty much cost us our production for the Valentine's Day pull. When you get a lot of rain, it inhibits your ability to get into the fields and pick, so then you generally have to go into the fields afterward to strip off the rain-soaked fruit and wait for a new round of fruit to be ready.
"The big promotions for Valentine's Day are usually the first berry promotions of the season, so to miss out on them is usually pretty costly to both the grower as well as the retailer," Grabowski said.
Maitoza also described decreased production for the upcoming holiday.
“We are looking ahead and optimistic for the volumes that we do have on the way very soon – there is a lot of fruit to come as these winter showers start to diminish toward the end of February and into March, just in time for the demand for spring-summer berries,” Maitoza said.
Weather has presented a challenge in Florida also, although not to the same extent.
Production has started to normalize this week, but lower temperatures have been an issue recently, said Amber Maloney, director of marketing for Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms.
“The cooler-than-normal weather in Florida this season has slowed down and hampered overall production, but the few weeks of cold weather and cloudy days really slowed down ripening, which was a challenge for all growers,” Maloney said Feb. 7. “It was common to have to wait 2-3 extra days in between harvests of the same block because of slow ripening.”
Even so, Wish Farms expects to be able to take advantage of the market for strawberries leading up to Valentine’s Day.
“Demand has been very strong as many retailers have ads in place this week and next,” Maloney said. “We have seen increased demand for Florida fruit with the recent heavy rains blanketing the state of California. We expect to see continued increases in production heading into next week that will hopefully be enough to support demand.
“The weather has probably (caused) our production levels to be roughly 20% lower than years past, but (we are) still harvesting good volumes for Valentine’s Day promotions,” she said.
Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, echoed those expectations.
“The supply outlook is great,” Harrell said Feb. 7. “Volumes are increasing, even tripling on some varieties. With this warm weather the fruit is stacking up and ripening within two to three days. Production has been ramping up, and we see the size increasing.
“The week leading up to Valentine’s Day growers will be able to pick long stems if the orders come in,” Harrell said. “They could be as large as 12-16 count.”
Grabowski also said Florida weather has been better recently and that production is increasing.
"We see Florida volume to be ramping up next week and running strong through March," Grabowski said. "So Florida may be able to offset some of the demand for Valentine’s Day strawberries but probably won’t have enough to fully meet the demand."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported f.o.b. prices for Florida strawberries as mostly $16.90-18.90 for flats of eight 1-pound containers with lids. The USDA noted Feb. 7 that demand exceeds supply for Florida strawberries and that California strawberry supplies were insufficient to establish a market.
Like O’Donnell, Grabowski expected the rain in California would be a positive for the crop for the season overall.
"The rain has been good to the effect that it's supplying much needed water in California, replenishing aquifers as well as cleaning up the soil," Grabowski said. "The plants are looking good and, when weather conditions improve, will be producing a huge crop of strawberries. Right now we are predicting the strawberry volume to be ramping up by the last week of February with promotable volumes in March and April."
Maitoza gave a similar forecast.
“Once these winter storms pass and Oxnard and Santa Maria begin to experience favorable weather, production will spike rapidly,” Maitoza said. “While the rainfall may be a short-term setback to the industry now, it is overall positive for the plants and for production in the long term. The fuel and nutrients that stem from these rain events will load up fields in the days and weeks ahead with good, strong fruit as we taper off the winter season and head into spring time.
“As for the very immediate forecast – a few consistent days of warm temperatures will ramp up production again between now and then across all growing regions,” Maitoza said.