OPN Connect Newsletter 304 · January 26, 2023

Organic Strawberry Supplies Light for Valentine’s Day

Traditionally, strawberries—especially stem berries—are a great item for retail promotions during the Valentine’s Day period, but this year very light supplies of both organic and conventional berries are expected through most of February because of the extensive rains in California and the cold weather in both Florida and Mexico.

A preliminary survey by the California Strawberry Commission (CSC) revealed that of California’s total 2023 strawberry plantings of 31,852 acres, 1,840 acres (about 6 percent) face catastrophic losses.

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Jeff Cardinale, CSC communications director, said the damaged acreage has not been delineated by its production category (organic vs. conventional), but one would expect the damaged acreage to mirror the general acreage split. Overall, he said that 12.6 percent of California's strawberry acreage is projected to be organic in 2023 (a 10 percent increase over 2022).

The rain damage could have a greater impact on ongoing organic supplies because of the acreage disparity, said Andrew Rice, vice president of field operations and product supply at California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA. “Both conventional and organic crops are impacted in the same way,” he said. “The only difference is that there is a smaller total amount of organic acreage, so any affected [organic] ranches will have a larger impact on the overall organic volume.” 

Andrew Rice, Vice President of Field Operations and Product Supply, California Giant Berry Farms

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Rain damage is highly variable across the state, with some ranches seeing little to no evidence of the rain events while others had significant flooding or erosion damage. “As of today [January 24], most flooding has subsided, and we are assessing the extent of the damage,” Rice said. “ The final impact to the productivity of the plants will not be known for several months.”

In the near term, Rice said the California rains have delayed the start of the season in Oxnard and to some extent in Santa Maria. “Volumes will remain relatively light through the Valentine's Day pull,” he said. 

“Both conventional and organic crops are impacted in the same way. The only difference is that there is a smaller total amount of organic acreage, so any affected [organic] ranches will have a larger impact on the overall organic volume.” - Andrew Rice

California growers are confident that, barring any more torrential downpours, the state’s strawberry supplies will return to a normal level. “Eventually, weather will push plant growth, and production will pick up rapidly,” Rice said, adding that there is concern that, due to the delayed start, all three districts will collide with significant supplies, bringing late spring and early summer pricing down.

While most acreage was not negatively impacted, Rice said “the long-term benefits [soil and plant health, basin recharge, etc.] of the rain greatly outweigh the short-term impact. The rain is a positive benefit in the long run due to California’s severe drought conditions. The rain improves the soil health, which will provide plants with a strong start once optimal weather conditions arrive.”  

Though California Giant Berry Farms does source organic strawberries from both Florida and Mexico at this time of year, as well as California, Rice said those districts are not offering much help to the supply situation. “Production out of Mexico and Florida is delayed due to weather,” he said. “We have been short on winter volume for the last few months and are waiting for production in those areas to pick up.”

Anthony Gallino of Bobalu Farms in Oxnard, CA, said the California rain in late December and early January “has put us about four to six weeks behind schedule.”

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Anthony Gallino, Bobalu Farms

The rains wiped out all the red fruit on the plants and eliminated the green fruit and the blooms that would have turned into fruit over the next few weeks. “We had to pick all the ripe and green fruit and throw it away,” Gallino said.