Early maturity affects many California crops

Issue Date: April 8, 2015
By Ching Lee
Kevin Healy, Salinas and Watsonville district manager for Driscoll’s, looks at strawberries just harvested from a field in Watsonville. Because of the unseasonably warm and dry weather throughout the winter and spring, Healy said strawberry harvest in the region is four to five weeks ahead of schedule, allowing more fruit to hit the market this time of year.
Photo/Richard Green
Ambrosia Zavala carries a flat of harvested strawberries from Kett Ranch in Watsonville, where warm, dry weather this winter and spring has allowed the fruit to mature earlier than normal.
Photo/Richard Green

Unseasonably warm growing conditions this winter and spring have pushed many of the state's crops to mature earlier, presenting potential challenges for some growers and marketing opportunities for others.

While crops such as strawberries and leafy greens saw lower market prices due to an oversupply coming from the state's different growing regions at the same time, growers of other fresh fruits say getting a head start allows them to capture more of the lucrative early market.

Kevin Healy, who manages strawberry production in Salinas and Watsonville for Driscoll's, said harvest in his region is four to five weeks ahead of schedule. He said this year may be "one of the longest extended seasons in history and potentially one of the most productive."

Strawberry plants began producing blooms so early that some growers were clipping them off to allow the plants to become more established before they started producing fruit, said Carolyn O'Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission.

Lack of cold weather and rainfall this winter, while great for growing strawberries, also brings ideal growing conditions for insects, Healy said, adding that he anticipates higher pest pressure in the field this year, which will mean additional management by growers.

"I think what we're seeing weather-wise this year is we're really in uncharted territory," he said. "Most of our planting dates and cultural practices have historically been a function of having what would be considered normal weather patterns, but we're nowhere near what we would consider normal weather patterns at this point."

With strawberries from Mexico, Orange County, Oxnard, Santa Maria and Watsonville/Salinas filling the market at the same time, growers in Oxnard began diverting their fresh berries to the frozen and processing market late last month "because the market was so poor and their fruit was so ripe," said Mark Derby, director of procurement for General Produce, a wholesaler based in Sacramento. Having a significant part of the state's growing district move their strawberries to processing will "hopefully turn the fresh market back to closer to normal," he added.

Joe Ange, purchasing director for Markon, which supplies fresh produce to restaurants and other food-service operations, said with higher demand seen during Easter this month and Mother's Day next month, the market for strawberries should normalize.

For Carmelo Sicairos, who manages raspberry and blackberry production for Driscoll's, the earlier season "could be very helpful for us." He noted that for his products, market prices tend to be higher before the summer months, when there is more fruit of all types on the market.

"We see April as a very good month to sell fruit," he said. "People are coming out of the winter and eager to buy fruit, and we have it available, so the earlier we come, the better we are."

Vegetable crops such as iceberg and romaine lettuce, green leaf, broccoli and cauliflower from the Salinas Valley and the Central Valley also got off to an early start last month, creating an overlap with supplies already coming from Arizona, the Imperial Valley, Ventura County and Santa Maria, Ange said. He noted the simultaneous harvest in multiple growing regions was unusual this year, and the flood of produce coming before the Easter demand created more downward pressure on the market.

"Typically, you have those desert regions finishing while the northern regions are just starting, but this year, they were all going at the same time when demand wasn't really kicking in," he said. "There's still a lot of supply on the market."

It didn't help that while the state experienced favorable growing conditions and high yields, other parts of the nation were still seeing wintry weather and people weren't in the mood for salad, Ange noted. School closures and people not going out to eat as much also drove down demand, he added.

For crops such as asparagus, prices have remained relatively strong despite the California crop coming in early while Mexican-grown asparagus was still on the market, Derby said. He noted that last week some retailers were selling the spears for $2.99 a pound, which is considered high for an item that's usually heavily promoted for the Easter holiday. But supplies have diminished because growing conditions in Mexico got too warm too quickly, leading to less production and quality issues.

Marc Marchini, who grows asparagus in San Joaquin County, said production problems in Mexico benefit California farmers but noted that his own crop has not been as prolific as he would like—and he said he has heard growers throughout the delta, Salinas and Firebaugh areas say the same thing. He said the lower yields may be related to lack of cold temperatures, as asparagus plants need to go into dormancy just as tree crops do.

Marchini also farms winegrapes, which he said are about two weeks ahead of schedule. His concern, he said, is how the earlier season will affect labor availability in his region, which has a big cherry crop that is also coming in early, when vineyards need people for shoot thinning.

But from a cultural production standpoint, Jeff Bitter, vice president of Allied Grape Growers, said being early and getting the crop matured and harvested ahead of fall rains is usually a blessing.

"Most grape growers don't complain about an early crop," he said. "As long as it stays warm and dry like it's been, I don't see any problem with bringing this crop to market."

California stone fruit season typically kicks off in early May, but early varieties will be available this month, said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. While there are some marketing opportunities for an earlier crop, he said there is also increased risk related to weather damage, as spring temperatures could fluctuate greatly and hail is still a concern during this time.

"We have a long ways to go before we're out of the danger," Bedwell said.

For the state's cherry crop, which is promoted ahead of Memorial Day, the earlier season means retailers across the nation will have ample supplies for that holiday, and that is positive, said Jim Hanson, who markets cherries for Grower Direct Marketing in Stockton.

There should not be much of an overlap between the California crop and Washington cherries, he added, because the entire West Coast growing region is early this year. An overlap problem only occurs if California is abnormally late and Washington starts early, leading to an oversupply in the market, he said.

Unlike last year's light cherry crop, Hanson said the state had a "much better season" this year, although noting it won't necessarily be a bumper crop. Last year's crop was hurt by lack of chill hours. This year, winter daytime temperatures were still unseasonably warm, he said, but cool nights made a difference. He noted both the Stockton-Linden-Lodi and Fresno-Reedley-Visalia growing regions recorded more chill hours this year than last, while the southern growing district of Kern County saw fewer chill hours.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.