U.S.: Rains may hinder California strawberry volumes but will boost quality, says rep
With Californian strawberry production set to significantly pick up over the coming weeks, an industry representative expects more positives than negatives from what has been one of the wettest winters in years for the Golden State.
California Strawberry Commission communications director Carolyn O'Donnell told Fresh Fruit Portal most of the relatively low volumes at this time of the year were coming out of southern growing areas, which generally receive less rain than central or northern areas.
But she explained that any potential damage caused to the fruit by the wet weather would not have a significant bearing on total volumes for the year.
"The thing about strawberries that makes it great is that they're not like tree fruit such as peaches plums or cherries where the tree blooms once, sets its fruit and that’s the fruit you’re going to have for the season," she said.
"Strawberries continuously bloom and produce fruit throughout the season, as long as the temperatures don’t get too hot or too cold. After any particular rain event that may damage the fruit they can just strip that fruit off and there will be flowers on that plant that are going to produce fruit within the next 30 days.
"So it does affect them, but growing in the winter time the growers would certainly have anticipated that there will be some disruptions due to weather with rain coming."
She went on to say a key benefit of rainfall for strawberry growers was that they rid the soil of unwanted compounds which can tend to build up during dry periods and adversely impact on the sensitive plants.
"We drip irrigate strawberries because we’re very judicious about how much water goes to each strawberry plant, but sometimes you can get a build up of salts in the soil because we’re not flushing that through and the farmers usually rely on the rain water to do that," she said.
"So in years when we don’t have a lot of rain, they don’t get a lot of that flush and can get salt build up."
She said the weather would therefore lead to healthier plants which would ultimately produce higher quality fruit.
The heavy rainfall and high snowpack on the Sierra Nevada also put the state's water infrastructure in a good position. However, O'Donnell said that as the majority of strawberry growers were located in coastal areas they mainly used on groundwater supplies and were not reliant on dams and reservoirs as other fruit and vegetable growers.
Less acreage, more volumes
Despite the state's planted acreage for strawberry production having dropped around 15% since 2013 to approximately 30,000 acres this year, volumes have been increasing on an annual basis.
O'Donnell explained this was both because of weather-related factors and new genetics becoming available.
"We didn’t have as much rain over recent years so we didn’t have those rain-damaged berries being stripped off - they went into market instead - but also we’re seeing some of the newer varieties that are being planted and grown produce more fruit per acre," she said.
Due to the year-round nature of California strawberry production, the industry provides annual production figures as opposed to seasonal ones. O'Donnell said it was therefore "really hard to predict" total volumes for 2017 as a whole, but said at this point indications were for similar or slightly higher levels than last year.
Last year 196.4 million trays of fresh strawberries were shipped, up 1.7% from 2015. By comparison, Florida and Mexico produced 26 million and 24.5 million trays respectively.
In terms of new varieties, two relatively new ones that have grown in acreage over recent years are San Andreas and Monterey, which are both higher-yielding.
While fruit breeders always look for the 'sweet spot' in terms of productivity, taste, appearance, post-harvest life and disease resistance, O'Donnell explained the latter aspect had become increasingly important of late.
"Disease resistance has always been an important consideration but it hasn’t always been the primary one," she said.
In California we’re losing many of our tools for controlling soil borne diseases. We had been using ground fumigation to control those diseases, but methyl bromide has been phased out and California is restricting out some of other tools.
"For the last seven or eight years we have had a research initiative called Farming without Fumigants, in terms of finding different strategies for controlling soil borne disease, whether that's using materials mustard seed meals or process like anaerobic soil disinfestation or a combination. But we're also looking at gene pool within varieties and seeing if we can come up with variety that is resistant."
New opportunities in China
The Chinese market opened for California strawberry shippers last year, and although expectations are for annual exports to eventually reach in the region on US$30 million, O'Donnell said the industry was very much in the trial stages.
"We're just starting, there have been a few shipments that have gone over, testing how the system works, the receiving end and that whole process.
"So the frist couple of years is really working out all the kinks in the overall system of delivery. China has its own production cycle but it's very short, so California farmers have an opportunity to take advantage of those times when there’s no domestic product in China."
Approximately a fifth of California strawberry production is exported outside of the U.S., with Canada and Mexico as the two main markets.
Demand is also strong within the U.S., and O'Donnell highlighted how per-capita consumption had doubled over the last 20 years.
"The trends show that people continue to favor strawberries," she said.
"Strawberries continue to pop up in new different places, now they're not just used in desserts and breakfasts but they've moved more to the savoy side of the plate. So people are finding more ways to incorporate strawberries into their diet."