(March 21, 2:00 p.m., PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) It’s almost like there are two growing seasons in California’s southern strawberry district during the winter/spring period.

The season that kicks off in the Oxnard, Calif., area and Orange County as early as December can be remarkably different from the late season in April and May.

December, January and February are characterized by light volume, high prices and threat of occasional freezing temperatures that can affect berries for several weeks.

During the second half of the season, volume hits its peak and prices hit their nadir, but weather still poses a threat — now in the form of high temperatures.

A common weather threat that can affect both periods is rain.

“Rain is always going to kill you, and it can come at any time,” said Matt Kawamura, marketing director at Orange County Produce LLC, Irvine, Calif.

Grower-shippers spend the first part of the season managing their berry crops, said Russ Widerburg, sales manager at Boskovich Farms, Oxnard. That means deciding who will get product, which is relatively scarce at that time, and how much they will get.

“You’re trying to take care of the customers who are going to take care of you when the volume comes on in later spring,” he said.

The scenario is a different one after Easter.

Growers producing 4,000 to 5,000 trays a day in February can pick up to 20,000 trays in April.

The dynamics of the early season and late season have changed in recent years with the arrival of the new albion strawberry variety, Kawamura said.

With Santa Maria and the northern districts planting more of albions, major volume has started to come on later, which provides an opportunity for the southern district to ship longer — provided volume and quality are still there.

The switch to the albion also has altered the competition a bit, pitting the Santa Maria district rather than Oxnard and Orange counties against the early season in Watsonville and Salinas, he said.

Some growers in the southern district are experimenting with the albion, which actually comes on earlier there, Kawamura said. That could get Oxnard and Orange counties off to an even earlier start — though overall production would not change.

In future seasons, growers could be planting as many as four varieties, each with its own characteristics and timeframe, he said.

From a sales perspective, the early season, with tighter supplies, can be a piece of cake compared to the late season.

“It’s easier to sell early because there are so few berries, although it is difficult to get people to promote,” Kawamura said.

The early season also has more weather disruptions and can be more frustrating for retailers whose orders may be cut back.

The situation improves for buyers after Easter, though, and shipments can remain strong from the southern district as late as Mother’s Day, the second week in May.

The second half can make or break the season, Widerburg said.

“The key will be if retailers and growers can get some ads out for post Easter,” he said.

“The biggest concern during the second half of the season is to keep the product moving for the growers so you can pick everything,” he added. “If the pipeline is full, there’s no market.”

The season in the southern district typically winds down in May.

How long Southern California continues can be affected by several factors — weather, product quality, volume and the status of production in the northern districts.

Once volume and quality start coming in from the north, growers in the south start thinking about sending their fruit to processors, Kawamura said, especially if their quality starts to wane.

As the season progresses, size of the berries decreases, Widerburg said. A container that could hold only 14 to 18 berries early in the season can hold up to 20 of the smaller berries that tend to come on toward the end of the season.

The market drops in April and May as more volume becomes available, and if freezer prices are decent growers often opt to get out of the fresh market and go into the freezer deal, he said.

Ideally, a grower will reach the point earlier in the season when he recovers his growing costs and starts to make a profit, Widerburg said. But some years that point, if it comes at all, may arrive so late that the grower must rely on the freezer deal to make a profit.