Barring a major weather turnaround, strawberries will be a rare commodity as 2011 gets under way.

Freezing temperatures in Florida, chilly weather in Mexico and a series of rainstorms in California are to blame.

Weather, the grinch that stole the strawberry crops

“It will be difficult to meet orders for the next week or so,” Jim Nahas, owner of Success Valley Produce LLC, Oxnard, Calif., said Dec. 28. “It has to clean up a bit.”

Cleaning up is draining enough of the standing rainwater to permit workers to have access to the fields. A small amount of berries at Success Valley’s Oxnard area fields suffered water damage, Nahas said, but blooms were not damaged significantly. It was a different picture at the company’s Santa Maria Valley acreage.

Strawberry f.o.b.s

According to the USDA, in late December prices for flats of 8 1-pound containers with
lids medium-large were mostly $24.90 from central Florida with quality good.

Out of Oxnard, Calif., USDA reported trading at a standstill as rain and wet fields halted
production, with supplies in too few hands to establish a market.

In Southern California, very light shipments were reported from the district, with supplies in
too few hands to establish a market.

“We had some cutback (second year) plants in Santa Maria, and the rain was pretty heavy,” he said.

Workers at the Oxnard area farmland of Watsonville-based California Giant Inc. were spending the week of Dec. 27 “making certain the drainage is working properly, making certain there’s an opportunity for the rainwater to run off,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing.

Through Dec. 28, the surveying found the rain had not affected the bloom, she said.

“Long term, we should be fine; short term, not a lot of fruit in the market,” Jewell said.

Picking resumed Dec. 27 at Orange County Produce, Irvine, Calif., said salesman Carlos Rangel. Most of the work in the fields south of Los Angeles was stripping damaged fruit, he said.

“One 20-acre parcel produced just two cartons of No. 2 strawberries,” Rangel said.

Even if storms forecast for the New Year’s Day weekend do not materialize, Orange County will be unable to do regular har-vesting before the week of Jan. 3, he said.

While it will not benefit retailers, there is a small up side for the grower-shippers.

“If we can get the major rain out of the way early in the season, it will be a lot less detrimental to us later on,” Nahas said.

That is not the only positive for the suppliers.

“There was not a lot of early crop,” said Fritz Koontz, marketing director for Beach Street Sales Inc., Watsonville. “A lot of the planting was late due to a plant shortage.”

Even if the weather improves, supplies will be “short for a while,” he said.

The industry does bounce back quickly after heavy rains, however.

“By the end of next week (week of Jan. 3), we should get into some nice fruit and good numbers,” Koontz said.

Sam Gabriel, owner of West Lake Fresh, Watsonville, is not as optimistic.

“We inspect every area every day,” he said. “The fruit is showing severe water damage, and we’ll have to strip the damaged fruit and start all over again.”

That does not mean a full growing cycle, however.

The rain has not damaged the white and green berries, Gabriel said, and some of those berries color to red daily. Still some blemished fruit will likely reach retail shelves.

“When there’s no fruit around, a slightly damaged strawberry looks pretty good to people who have no other choice,” Gabriel said.

Even with limited supplies, the traditionally high end-of-year prices are not likely to climb much more, grower-shippers said. The Oxnard region is just starting its season, which will run through May and into June, Nahas said. So there is time to make up for early season losses.

That the plants are constantly producing new berries also helps the bounce back effect.

“There’s so much fruit out there ready to pick, it wouldn’t take long to turn it around,” Gabriel said.