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Strawberry farmers battle rainy weather, look to bounce back from last year

Posted at 10:47 PM, Mar 01, 2019

California is home to nearly 80 percent of the nation’s strawberry production.

The strawberries are the top crop in Santa Barbara County and farmers are optimistic of this year’s crop after a spring freeze in 2018 disrupted the cycles and hurt farmers.

“Weather is a huge factor as you can tell,” Ben Adam said, Fresh Way Farms production coordinator. “It’s been a wet, rainy year which is pushed our production back a little bit.”

With the current production cycle set in Ventura County, the poor weather conditions have hampered farmers the most.

Ag Alert reported a “wetter winter so far has reduced the amount of marketable fruit coming from the Oxnard District.”

This year, acreage has dropped 12 percent, according to the California Strawberry Commission, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“We’re finding that the plants that are planted have higher yields and so you’re able to be more efficient and produce more fruit on a small amount of land,” Carolyn O’Donnell said in a phone interview. O’Donnell is the communications director for the commission.

“Even there was a reduction in acres, farmers are getting better at choosing varieties that are conducive to higher yields and grow the crop better,” Adam said.

California’s strawberry production works in succession with growing periods that run from Oxnard, to Santa Maria, to Watsonville.

The freeze last year affected the growing cycle. “It kind of set all of the plants to the same cycle and last year, everybody came into production at the same time,” O’Donnell said.

The situation harmed the market, creating a glut and killing prices. But even with an optimistic outlook for this production year, strawberry farmers face other challenges.

Strawberries are hand-planted, hand-harvested, and hand-packed, leaving less circumstance for automation. It also faces challenges when it comes to workers.

“The opportunities and the options are narrowing to have some type of guest-worker program that works. works for communities, works for farmers, and for the workers themselves.”

As far as impact goes, the commission reports strawberry farms return 97 cents of every farm dollar to their local communities.

Last week, nearly 451,000 were harvested. Only 36,600 came from Santa Maria. That production will pickup as we get closer to summer.

California strawberries are exported to over 30 countries.