(Aug. 14) WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Strawberry shippers here expect markets to stay strong through August as production goes through a seasonal lull.

By early September, supplies should stabilize and may increase a little, said Michael Hollister, vice president of sales for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc.

Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Inc., said he expects consistent production for the company until the week of Aug. 26, when shipments should see an increase of 20% to 30%.

Still, Steve Johnston, director of marketing for Pacific Gold Farms Inc., noting an accelerated production schedule so far this season, said he expects August and September to have lighter volumes than last year.

As of Aug. 11, the California strawberry industry had shipped a year-to-date total of 86.1 million flats of 12 1-pint baskets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same time last year, it was 72 million.

In light of the heavy supplies so far, remaining production for the strawberry plants could be lean, Johnston said.

In mid-August, the USDA reported f.o.b.s for flats of 12 1-pint baskets of medium-large strawberries from the Salinas-Watsonville district at mostly $9.90-10.90. The same time last year, prices were in the $8.90-9.90 range.

Last season, prices continued to climb through August, reaching $12.90-14.90 for medium-large berries Aug. 27 before coming down Sept. 4 to $10.90-12.90.

Hollister said last August’s pricing was above average. Acreage was significantly lower than previous years, and the strawberries didn’t have much of a return crop after the August lull, he said. This year, Driscoll is expecting more of a return crop.

The California Strawberry Commission reports Salinas-Watsonville acreage at 11,300 acres this year, compared to 10,759 in 2001 and 11,444 in 2000.

Besides seasonal production trends, shippers attributed the higher prices this August to weather that further limited supplies. That included drizzle and fog in early August, and temperatures reaching the mid-90s the weekend of Aug. 10, said John Corrigan, director of marketing and business development for Naturipe Berry Growers.

Hot weather can hurt the quality of the fruit, which caused more product to be culled, said Pat Riordan, owner of California Giant Inc. He said the company was picking only 40% of the volumes it had harvested in July.

Despite the lower production anticipated for August, the industry should be able to maintain retail movement as long strawberries can maintain positioning in stores, Corrigan said.

Hollister said that during the strawberry lull there will still be sufficient supplies of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries for promotions.

Shipments from central California should continue through October and maybe into November, Corrigan said.