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High berry demand extends to transplants

Issue Date: May 19, 2021
By Ching Lee
Liz Elwood-Ponce, left, and her brother Kenny Elwood, owners of Lassen Canyon Nursery in Shasta County, look over a strawberry plant being grown as part of the company’s breeding program. Higher demand for strawberries has increased California acreage of the crop, boosting sales of transplants.
Photo/Lori Eanes
Jo Richardson, left, greenhouse manager of Lassen Canyon Nursery, pollinates a strawberry plant as part of the nursery’s in-house breeding program while owner Liz Elwood-Ponce looks on.
Photo/Lori Eanes

Fueled by increased demand, California farmers have devoted more acreage to strawberries this year. But limiting factors such as availability of transplants and suitable land to grow the crop will temper planting growth in the state—and how quickly farmers can react to spikes in sales.

Farmers are looking for more ground to expand strawberry acreage, said Mel Fernandez, a sales representative for Lassen Canyon Nursery in Shasta County, which sells strawberry transplants to U.S. and foreign growers. He noted he has heard of strawberries being planted this year in areas that have not been used for the crop in 10 to 15 years, which has led to increased orders for transplants.

"This year for Lassen, we've got more business than we know what to do with," he said.

California strawberry acreage climbed to its highest level in five years, to 36,487 acres, up 3% from a year ago, according to the California Strawberry Commission. Every growing region in North America, including California, Florida and Mexico, increased plantings in response to higher demand last year, commission President Rick Tomlinson said.

About 80% of California strawberries are sold fresh, he noted. The other 20% goes to processing, largely as frozen berries, much of which end up in food service, which also buys 15% of fresh-market strawberries.

In the last year, retail sales for both fresh and frozen strawberries have been strong, Tomlinson noted.

Consumer panels show strawberries being one of the fruits people purchased more of during the pandemic—with people who buy strawberries regularly buying more and irregular consumers of the berry becoming regular buyers, he said.

"More and more people really connect with strawberries," Tomlinson said. "To put it in some context, strawberries are now the single largest source of vitamin C from fresh fruit for the American consumer."

Not that there were no hiccups along the way.

At the start of the pandemic lockdown last year, Tomlinson said the strawberry market collapsed, with losses topping $60 million during the first 30 days. The market largely stabilized by May, after logistical issues and disruptions with retailers were ironed out. Government programs and food-bank purchases also helped to stabilize the market, he added.

Tom Am Rhein, who grows strawberries in Watsonville, said 2020 ended up being "a better year than we'd seen in a while." But he said that came after years of struggling to balance supply and demand.

California acreage does fluctuate, Am Rhein said, but the increases tend to be limited and move "very slowly," in large part because planning a strawberry crop requires decisions to be made at least a year in advance, due to land rotation and preparation, and transplants that must be ordered. Plus, with water issues up and down the coast and "a very limited microclimate where strawberries can grow," farmers cannot quickly add acreage—though they've been increasing production with higher-yielding varieties, he said.

"That's really how the strawberry industry would grow," Am Rhein said. "It would not be by expansion of acreage; it would be by the productivity of the acres that we have available to us."

There's good reason the Monterey variety, released by the University of California in 2009, remains popular for California farmers, said Mark Curtice, who handles sales for Lassen Canyon Nursery in Watsonville and Baja, Mexico. The high-yielding variety yields berries with "reasonably good flavor" well into the fall, regardless of day length or temperature. A main drawback, he noted, is the plant's tendency to shoot lots of runners, which draw energy from the plant to produce berries, increasing grower costs to cut the runners.

High productivity remains important, Am Rhein said, and farmers also look for varieties with disease resistance, because they now have fewer chemical tools to protect crops. He said farmers also want a good-tasting berry that holds up during shipping with good shelf life.

"Usually, it's really hard to find a variety that has all those things," said Kenny Elwood, who co-owns Lassen Canyon Nursery with his sister Liz Elwood-Ponce.

Lassen Canyon maintains its own breeding program, which has been working on varieties with more flavor and disease resistance, Elwood said, though he noted the varieties may produce 25% less fruit than traditional UC varieties. Disease resistance has been a main focus for the company, he said, because as fumigation and chemical use becomes more restricted, he thinks farmers will place more importance on that trait.

Elwood-Ponce said the company has begun to sell a new variety called Sierra, and Curtice said he knows two farmers who may order half a million transplants each. Most farmers, he said, "want to try whatever's new every year."

"Everyone's looking for any small advantage they can have in the marketplace," he added.

Elwood said the nursery has managed to keep up with farmer demand because it typically produces extra transplants, in case of production problems.

The transplants are produced using tissue culture taken from a runner, or shoot, off an original plant. This process begins at company headquarters in Redding, also home to a screenhouse where the plants are further propagated. From there, the plants are multiplied in the company's foundation fields in Manteca. The final grow-out takes place in Siskiyou County, because the region can provide the proper chilling strawberry transplants need to give farmers a good start once the plants are in the ground, Elwood said.

With acreage increasing this year, Fernandez said he wonders whether demand for strawberries will continue to rise as states begin to reopen from the pandemic and people start to spend money on vacations, concerts, outings and other discretionary items.

At the strawberry commission, Tomlinson noted consumption has grown year over year and people now buy strawberries all year long, so he said he thinks "these habits are here to stay."

"It really does feel like this demand is solid," he said.

(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.




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