Agriculture

A berry nice time for fruit

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG
Steve Lo, a strawberry grower with a field on Buhach Road, picks berries on Friday morning, April 9, 2010.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Steve Lo, a strawberry grower with a field on Buhach Road, picks berries on Friday morning, April 9, 2010. Merced Sun-Star

On a sun-dappled April morning, Steve Lo was busy in his strawberry field.

Despite heavy rain last weekend, and a pesky bug that seems to be eating the roots of his Buhach Road plants, Lo's six-acre field is fairly bursting with the bright red fruit.

Even so, "my plants aren't doing so well right now," Lo said. "A beetle is just eating up the plants."

The weekend rains also caused Lo some problems. "Because there is plastic on the plants, when the water gets under that plastic it just fries the berries," he said.

Although Lo has battled the forces of nature this year, he said his sales are still strong. He sells both at his roadside stand and at the Saturday flea market on G Street.

Strawberries in the county will be ripening between now and the middle of July, Lo said. There's also a late strawberry season when the fruit is ready to harvest in October.

Lo grows three varieties of the red fruit: Chandler, Albion and Camarosa. According to the California Strawberry Commission, Chandler is the most common berry grown in the San Joaquin Valley, and mostly goes for processing.

Lo's field is a disappearing scene in Merced County. In 2005, according to the Merced County agricultural commissioner's report, there were 377 acres of strawberries in the county. That dropped to 93 acres in 2008.

"Most of the growers in our county are small growers," said David Robinson, agricultural commissioner. "They contract with Dole and sell their excess in roadside stands."

Growers have found it hard lately to get contracts with producers, and along with a big crop loss a couple of years ago from hail, many struggling growers in the county got out of the strawberry business.

In grocery stores, consumers find good deals on strawberries. Because Florida's crop was delayed by unseasonably cool weather, Florida strawberries are hitting the marketplace the same time as California strawberries are.

California accounts for 59 percent of strawberries grown in the U.S., while Florida only produces 11 percent. The main strawberry growing area is in the Central Coast area of California.

Earlier this year, there was a shortage of strawberries because of the Florida weather. The low prices are causing some strawberry farmers to let their berries rot on the stem rather than sell at a loss.

Lo deploys a backup to his strawberry fields. He also farms 10 acres of vegetables, and despite his weather and bug problems, he keeps a crew of people hard at work.

"About 30 people are picking my strawberries three times a week," Lo said. "(The strawberries) keep us busy."

He and the remaining growers can only hope the Beatles were right about strawberry fields forever.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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