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Survey Shows Likely Increase in Strawberry Plantings




After two years of reducing their acreage, California farmers are expected to devote more land to strawberry production, which could lead to another record crop this year.

In a survey of strawberry handlers, the California Strawberry Commission projects acreage at 34,167 this year, up nearly 3.7% from 32,957 acres in 2019. Acreage planted in the fall, which produces berries during the winter, spring and summer months, was reported at 26,982, up 4.3% from last year; summer-planted acreage for fall production is expected to rise 1.4% to 7,185 acres.

Though the commission described the projected acreage increase as "modest," it noted that farmers' use of higher-yielding varieties has allowed them to produce record volumes of California strawberries year after year, despite a general trend of declining acreage since 2014.

"With normal weather patterns, 2020 California strawberry volume is expected to reach record levels from Easter to Independence Day," the commission said.

The biggest acreage increases were reported in the Santa Maria district, where fall- and summer-planted acreage each jumped more than 7%. Fall-planted acreage in the Watsonville/Salinas district, which continues to be the state's dominant strawberry-producing region, rose 4%. The Oxnard district reported a nearly 5% drop in its summer-planted acreage and a slight decline in its fall-planted acreage. Acreage in the Orange County/San Diego/Coachella district increased 4.5% to about 231 acres.

Watsonville strawberry grower Tom Am Rhein said he does not view the overall acreage increase as a big change, noting that some of it could be attributed to normal crop rotation. A more significant trend, he said, has been in regions such as Orange County, once a significant source of strawberries that now has virtually no production left. He pointed to urbanization and the cost and availability of water as pressures that have driven down acreage in the southern districts, including in Oxnard.

"Just the ability to apply crop chemicals, with some of the setbacks around schools, especially in urban areas, has affected strawberry acreage," he said.

Part of that lost Southern California acreage is being offset by increases in Mexico, Am Rhein said, noting that some California strawberry shippers have simply moved more of their production farther south "into areas where there's still land available in that climate zone." The strawberry commission estimated Mexican acreage for 2019-20 at 30,400, up 8%.

Part of that lost Southern California acreage is being offset by increases in Mexico, Am Rhein said, noting that some California strawberry shippers have simply moved more of their production farther south "into areas where there's still land available in that climate zone." The strawberry commission estimated Mexican acreage for 2019-20 at 30,400, up 8%.

"We're going to have to increase our efficiency to cover those costs, which are significant, especially in a crop that's so labor-intensive," he said.

With the minimum-wage increase at the start of the year—and more scheduled increases in coming years—Ed Ortega, who farms strawberries in Watsonville, said the crop has become "very expensive" to grow in California and trying to sell it at the price he needs to stay in business is ever more difficult.

"The costs are too high," he said. "We're trying to find a way to increase our sales to cover those costs, but it's becoming very, very hard to do that."

Ortega said he's managed to maintain his strawberry acreage and said the state's increased acreage this year will mean more strawberries on the market, "which is going to be a problem." He stressed that the increased acreage doesn't necessarily translate to more profits for farmers, especially if an oversupply lowers prices on the fresh market and pushes berries into the freezer market.

Total California organic strawberry acreage is expected to rise 3.5% to 4,204 acres, with all the increases coming from fall plantings in the Santa Maria district (up almost 31%) and the Watsonville/Salinas district (up 3%), according to the commission.

The Oxnard district reported a 58% reduction in its fall-planted organic strawberry acreage. All strawberry-producing regions reported drops in their summer-planted organic acreage, which is projected to fall 7.5% . The most significant was in the Oxnard district, where summer-planted acreage is expected to dip more than 16%.

As someone who markets directly, Phil McGrath, who grows organic strawberries in Ventura County, said he's kept his acreage about the same every year. He sells his products at farmers markets and roadside stands, to restaurants and schools, and via community-supported agriculture programs.

Due to the preferences of those markets, McGrath said he does not grow the newer and higher-yielding varieties that have come to dominate acreage, opting instead for heirloom varieties. But with a shortage of people to harvest strawberries, he said growers turn to higher-yielding varieties to maintain their production levels while using less land. Those newer varieties also produce larger berries that fill boxes faster and hold up better during shipping, he added.

As for the decline in organic strawberry acreage in his district, McGrath said he thinks "a lot of people are disillusioned with the entire organic industry," noting recent changes in organic standards and rules he said have put traditional organic farmers at a disadvantage. The closing of several strawberry companies in recent years also did not help, he said.

"We're not getting the prices we used to get," McGrath said. "When those returns get lower and lower, people start cutting back."

But the biggest factors leading to reduced organic acreage in his area, he said, are likely labor and water, citing the increase in the minimum wage and the high cost of water in his region.

"If there were a lot of farmers that made money on strawberries last spring, I guarantee you you'd see higher (acreage) numbers," he said. "Nobody's jumping into strawberries. I know a lot of growers that aren't growing strawberries anymore."

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Quote of the Day:
"Agriculture is not crop production as popular belief holds - it's the production of food and fiber from the world's land and waters. Without agriculture it is not possible to have a city, stock market, banks, university, church or army. Agriculture is the foundation of civilization and any stable economy.

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