The California strawberry industry is actively looking into new technologies that could change the future of its harvesting seasons.
Specifically, the industry is focusing on advances to automate harvests, says the California Strawberry Commission's communications director Carolyn O'Donnell.
"For the past several years, it's always been a challenge to find an adequate labor force" she explains. "One of the things that strawberry farmers have really been looking at is different ways to automate the harvest to address the labor issue."
She notes that many different companies are currently working toward developing an automated harvester, but the challenge lies in creating machinery that can differentiate between strawberry plants' blossoms, unripe fruit, and ready-to-pick berries.
What's more, she emphasizes the equipment must achieve results without damaging the delicate plants themselves.
In hopes of overcoming these obstacles, the California Strawberry Commission and the Cal Poly Strawberry Center recently co-hosted the second Strawberry Automation Summit at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center, in San Luis Obispo, California.
This year's summit, held April 3, showcased the latest advances in production automation, highlighting on-farm robotics and integration of digital technologies in strawberry production agriculture, reported Cal Poly News.
"We brought together a number of technology specialists and farmers and innovators as well as drawing on the engineering program at Cal Poly to start developing different ways that we can find to automate the harvest," says O'Donnell.
She adds: "We might not have anything to address at this year's harvest, but in subsequent years, we may start to see more automation happening in the field.
"Certainly finding some kind of harvest aids would be of assistance to the workers in the field already."
Strawberry volumes down from last year's post-freeze spike
With California's strawberry season reaching its peak, O'Donnell notes that this year's volumes have decreased notably from last season's.
According to O'Donnell, strawberry volumes in northern California are a few million trays behind where they were last year.
Elaborating on this figure, she says: "This time last year, Santa Maria had a little over nine million trays and, as of the end of last Saturday, they're reporting 7.7 million trays."
Regarding a few other regions' harvests that have suffered less of a decrease, she adds: "In the Watsonville and Salinas areas, it's about 300,000 trays behind where they were this time last year, but it's very early in the season for Watsonville and Salinas so there's no way to make any predictions at this point".
O'Donnell points to the dip in numbers as the result of 2019 being a more typical year in terms of growing conditions as compared to last season, which saw extreme weather affecting strawberry harvests.
She explains: "Last year, we had a really unusual year because of the freeze, so we had a lot of production coming all at once from all locations because of that."
While she comments that winter production in the southern part of the state, including Orange and Ventura Counties, started "a bit slower" this year, she says this "also keeps the berries from coming on earlier up in the Laytonville area", which can be advantageous for local farmers.
She clarifies: "This way, you don't have a lot of berries in the market all at once. The challenge is that you can't store them, so the strawberry farmers are price-takers, not price-makers".
As far as growing conditions for the rest of the season, she believes things look promising: "We don't see any rain in the forecast...and we ended the rainy season, so we're looking forward to a great year".
O'Donnell adds that domestic demand for the berries, as well as per capita consumption of them, have only grown over the years, and along with the commission's optmistic expectations for the rest of the season, it has launched a fresh social media campaign: the #get snacking challenge.
To participate, consumers can post photos of how they incorporate strawberries into their favorite snacks on Instagram, using the initiative's hashtag.
"Each month, there's a grand prize winner and two runner-ups who are chosen and then, out of each of those five months, we have three winners - there will be a total of 15...From those, we'll have popular voting for a grand prize, which will be US$1,000," she says.
In this way, the commission hopes to influence consumers by encouraging them to view strawberries as a healthy snack option.