The Oregon strawberry season will kick off next month. But competition and other factors have left production at a fraction of what it once was. Niche marketing for both processed and fresh fruit is keeping the commodity alive, but it will probably never return to its glory days.

Oregon producers are projected to harvest about 2,000 acres of strawberries this year. That's more than a 30 percent drop from the 3,130 acres harvested as recently as 2003 and less than half of the acreage harvested 10 years ago. Still, the Oregon strawberry remains a signature crop for many folks.

"Oregon strawberries are noted world-wide for their unique color and great, sweet flavor," says Dalton Hobbs, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Oregon still ranks third in the United States when it comes to production, but remains far behind berry giants California and Florida, producing only 1.1 percent of the nation's strawberries. Foreign competition from Mexico also is a major factor. According to the Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service, 2,100 acres were harvested last year, producing 11,500 tons of fruit with a production value of $15.9 million. That's a far cry from the high point of $31 million a decade ago.

"California and Mexico are producing such a large volume of fresh strawberries," says Bernadine Strik, Extension berry crops professor with Oregon State University's Department of Horticulture. "Even though they only process about 25 percent of what they produce, that is still a tremendous volume of fruit and about 30 times what Oregon produces for processing. That volume of strawberries is so much cheaper than what our growers can produce. So we've seen a very rapid decline in our industry."

Oregon strawberries still areprimarily destined for processing. The varieties grown in Oregon are not suited for long-distance shipping for fresh sales.

Strik recalls a conversation she had with a food manufacturer that produced strawberry pies. She wanted to know why the processor didn't use Oregon berries and was simply told they were more expensive. When she suggested consumers would pay more for an Oregon strawberry pie compared with one made with fruit from California or Florida, the processor said consumers wouldn't know the difference.

Local strawberry processors also have declined in recent years with only about half as many in Oregon as there were in the 1980s. Consolidation of buyers as well as processors also has had an impact on the available market for Oregon strawberry growers and has kept the price paid for the fruit from being stronger. In the meantime, operating expenses for growers have risen, in part, due to Oregon's relatively high minimum wage.

"In general, our growers pay pickers more per pound to hand pick the fruit than what the California finished product is sold for," Strik says. "That is partly why our growers struggle to make a living growing this crop. California growers have the advantage of lower labor rates, a yield per acre that is more than three times what our growers can achieve, and a large share of their production going for the higher value fresh market"

The picture isn't totally bleak. Health-related research and advertising have created an awareness and demand for strawberries. Per capita consumption hit a record high of 5.8 pounds of fresh strawberries in 2005. However, consumption of frozen strawberries is much less at 2.2 pounds per person. Oregon berries are a big hit at local farm stands and farmers' markets. Direct marketing remains a viable alternative for some growers who often produce a wide array of berries.