It’s been a season of record shipments for California strawberry growers, and mid-July prices were steady as compared to last year’s.

California growers shipped nearly 109.2 million trays of strawberries so far this year as of the week ending July 3, said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville. Last year at the same time, California’s year-to-date shipping total was about 108 million trays.

“Pretty much every grower-shipper is picking a lot, and that’s good news for the retailer and the consumer,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing, California Giant Inc., Watsonville.

As of July 6, California growers had shipped more than 7 million trays in each of four weeks of this year. In 2009, its highest weekly shipping volumes were about 6 million trays, which occurred in 10 weeks.

Despite greater volume, prices were the same as last year. On July 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that prices for flats of eight 1-pound strawberry containers with lids shipping from Salinas and Watsonville, Calif., were at $7-8, the same as they were a year earlier.

O’Donnell said there were fewer acres of strawberries planted this year as compared to last year, but a combination of good growing weather and higher-yield varieties was producing a bigger volume.

California Giant has the same acreage of strawberries as last year, but it is expected to ship more trays, Jewell said. The company ships between 18 million and 21 million trays in a season.

“We had a wet and cold winter and that helped the plants to get a lot of vigor,” she said. “It helped in getting the salt out of the soil and producing optimal conditions.”

The albion and san andreas varieties are two higher-yield varieties California Giant is growing this summer. Promotable supplies should be available at least through September, with smaller volumes in October until the season ends in November.

“Good, strong volumes will prevail all summer long,” Jewell said.

Red Blossom Farms, Santa Ynez, Calif., planted 2,400 acres of strawberries this year in Santa Maria, Calif., and in the Salinas/Watsonville area, said Michelle Deleissegues, director of marketing. She said the company expects to ship 14 million trays this season, and it should have promotable volumes through September.

Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, was harvesting good quality strawberries in July, said Douglas Ronan, vice president of marketing.

He said the company projected continued good quality into October. Volumes were beginning to peak in mid-July, Ronan said, and were expected to remain high until about Labor Day, when a drop in volume typically occurs.

In late June, the Watsonville district’s strawberry production was at peak. Stephanie Hilton, spokeswoman for Beach Street Farms, Watsonville, said crops there should continue producing into autumn.

Typically, Beach Street has promotable volumes of strawberries from Watsonville until October or November. Watsonville’s production overlaps with the Oxnard district, where Beach Street typically harvests beginning in September.

Beach Street has had good demand for conventional and organic strawberries, Hilton said. It expects to ship a volume similar to or slightly higher than last year’s. Hilton declined to say how much the company would ship.

Organic berries
Hilton said that demand for organic strawberries remained strong during the past two years, despite the poor economy.

“There’s a solid base of demand for organic produce and that’s certainly grown over the years,” she said.

“It’s a base that’s not affected by some economic issues that have affected other consumers.”

Beach Street ships organic strawberries under its Sandpiper Farms label. Hilton said volume was expected to be more than last year because acreage was increased slightly. She declined to say how many trays would ship or how many acres were planted.

Driscoll’s ships organic strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in the summer. Consumer demand for the company’s organic berries also grew during the economic downturn, Ronan said.

“I think we’ve been able to offer good value to consumers wanting to buy the (organic) category, but it’s also a reflection of the interest and appeal of berries overall,” he said.

California Giant’s organic strawberry volume is expected to be about 20% more this summer than last, Jewell said. The company added acreage and this year expanded its organic program to offer a year-round supply of organic strawberries.

Jewell said the demand for organic berries continues to increase, and California Giant is trying to grow enough to meet, but not exceed, the demand.

Organic berry prices typically vary with conventional berry prices, Jewell said. While the grower-shipper tries to maintain a price differential for organic, it still rises and falls with conventional prices.

Like conventional prices, organic prices were similar to last year’s. On July 14, the USDA reported prices for flats of eight 1-pound containers of organic strawberries were at $10-11. A year earlier, prices were $10-12.