WATSONVILLE—California’s strawberry season is coming to a close. While sales remained strong throughout the summer, growers have seen production dip slightly.
Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission (CSC), said that after the season’s initial hardships, things eventually leveled off and demand actually increased. But then they began seeing a decrease in yields.
“It’s been a very interesting season,” O’Donnell said. “There was a lot of demand but then we saw the production start to drop off. It caught us by surprise.”
O’Donnell and other experts say this might be due to changes in strawberry varieties. The Monterey variety, for instance, usually yields a lot more berries per acre. As more growers have started planting them, acreage itself has decreased.
“And now we’re seeing Monterey [varietal] dropping off a bit earlier than usual,” O’Donnell said. “There’s some speculation… is this the end of the variety? It takes a long time to bring a variety to market, and the vitality doesn’t last forever… We may eventually see more of a mix.”
With less yields, some workers have allegedly reported their hours being cut. This has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced growers to modify operations in the fields.
So demand continues, even increases—but production and labor is unsteady.
“It’s been a real challenge,” O’Donnell said. “We are having to modify operations to make sure growers are keeping workers safe… spreading crews out, scheduling people differently. We’ve been trying to make sure growers know what they need to do.”
Due to the high demand and the recent dip in production, berry prices also remain high—surpassing the average price for the past four years. At the end of July, the USDA reported that a flat of strawberries currently averaged about $17, as opposed to $10 last summer.
Still, the season remains ahead of last year’s—though behind 2018, a record year for the crop. According to the CSC, more than 133 million flats of berries were harvested, as opposed to last year’s 125 million. In 2018, the total was about 141 million.
The California Strawberry Commission recently published a new acreage survey and O’Donnell says they are planning to kick off another in November. You can read the results at calstrawberry.com/en-us.