(April 26) WATSONVILLE, Calif. — By April 22, California strawberry growers had shipped 8 million more cartons, or an increase of 52%, than they had by the same time last year.

And there’s more coming, which means heavy supplies for Mother’s Day promotions. The traditional peak is early May, and production in the important Watsonville district is just now ramping up. Growers said the volume of strawberries this year is more an improvement over last year than an aberration.

“This is just huge,” said Abby Taylor, a communications specialist for the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville. “We have a lot of acreage, and the weather has been propelling the volume. The quality is great. The berries are juicy and sweet and look good on the shelves.”

By April 22, California had shipped 24.3 million trays of strawberries. By the same day last year, it had shipped 15.9 million trays.

PRICES

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported April 22 that strawberry prices had dropped in the Watsonville, Santa Maria and Southern California growing districts. On April 22, flats of 12 pint baskets of medium to large berries brought $7.90 in the Watsonville District and $6.90-7.90 in the other two districts. Flats of eight 1-pound containers brought similar prices.

At the same time last year, California strawberries sold for $10.75-12.90, depending on the pack configuration.The 2002 weekly volume of California strawberries surpassed the 5 million-tray mark a week earlier than last year and two weeks earlier than 2000, Taylor said. The volume for the week ending April 20 increased 21% over the previous week’s.

Production has been heavy so far this year, but last year was considered a light market, said Michael Leach, vice president of sales and marketing for Watsonville-based California Giant Inc.

Weather continues to be a factor, particularly in northern California, he said.

“There’s production in Watsonville right now, but it’s light production,” Leach said April 24. “If the weather cooperates, it will be about two weeks before production really takes off in Watsonville.”

“We expect a large peak in early May,” Taylor said. “The peak will get bigger as we get into early May but then taper off as usual toward mid-May.”

PROMOTIONS

Volumes are building for a large Mother’s Day promotion for May 12. The commission is sponsoring a new consumer public relations campaign. On May 8, New York City chef and cookbook author Carrie Levin will conduct a Mother’s Day satellite media tour that will create 3- to 4-minute television segments.

The segments will feature an easy-to-make strawberry breakfast recipes and provide strawberry nutrition facts. They will air in 18 to 20 markets across the U.S. In addition, the commission has released a recipe for strawberry and brie bruschetta to the Associated Press for publication in newspaper food pages around the Mother’s Day holiday.

The commission also has produced a nutrition fact sheet to be sent to the health community and retail consumer affairs directors throughout the country. It focuses on strawberries and cancer prevention, family nutrition, phytochemical content, heart health and immune function. Copies are available by calling (831) 724-1301.

NO SURPRISE

Growers said they were not surprised by the amount of strawberries available during mid- to late April this year.

Craig Moriyama, vice president of fresh sales for Watsonville-based Naturipe Berry Growers, said growers had predicted big supplies after Easter.

“The industry itself said there would be a lot of berries in April,” Moriyama said. “Movement has been good. There have been a lot of ads and promotions.”

Moriyama said a mild April helped bring on volume, but that Northern California berries were still behind and might not reach promotable volumes until mid-May.

California produces more berries per month from April through June, though the crop lasts through October.

Strawberry production, at 27,178 acres, shot up 8% this year, from 25,143 in 2001.

Cindy Jewell, executive vice president of the California Strawberry Commission, said she has expected all along that the crop would come close in volume to the 2000 crop, which was a record at 88 million trays.

For the week ending April 13, California had shipped nearly 18 million trays. The same week last year the state had shipped 11.4 million. In 2000, a record-setting year, about 18.6 million trays had been shipped.

“In February 2001, we had nothing but rain and cold. Last year we had a big shortage for Easter,” Leach said. “This year, we’re closer to where we want to be.”