Central Valley

Strawberry season starts early

Strawberries are pictured for sale at Loretelli Farms on Wednesday afternoon  in Modesto. This year’s strawberry season arrived a couple of weeks early because of the warm weather.
Strawberries are pictured for sale at Loretelli Farms on Wednesday afternoon in Modesto. This year’s strawberry season arrived a couple of weeks early because of the warm weather. jlee@modbee.com

The region’s strawberry season got off to an early start this year, thanks to the warm and dry weather of late winter.

That weather does not bode well for much of the agriculture in the Valley, not in this fourth year of drought, but it does mean a treat for people who have been craving the berries.

The Valley plays a tiny role in the state’s industry – just 91 of the 37,438 acres this year, according to the California Strawberry Commission. The rest is in the coastal belt between Santa Cruz and San Diego counties.

The Valley also has a far shorter season than the coast, which covers all 12 months of the year with strawberries from somewhere.

Strawberries hit the produce stands before the region’s much larger production of cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, grapes and other crops.

In Merced County, the strawberry industry is an approximately half-million dollar industry.

In average years, the county can produce about 500 tons of strawberries. In 2013, for example, 102 acres were harvested, each producing about five tons of strawberries, according to the Merced County Department of Agriculture.

David Doll, a farm adviser for Merced County with the University of California Cooperative Extension, said the strawberry industry in Merced County is small in production, but still very important to growers.

The strawberries sold on the roadside come from small-acreage farmers. Doll explained that these growers produce rich berries that are good mainly for local consumption, but cannot be stored for too long.

According to Doll, the success of this year’s strawberry season will be mainly dependent on the heat. Just as the heat accelerated the season, it also can be cut short if the high temperatures continue, he said.

Sean Lassley of Madera recently stopped at the Saeteurn Family Farm stand in northern Fresno County. “These are my first baskets of the year,” he said. “And the first of what will be many, many more baskets before the season is over.”

“We’re about two weeks ahead,” said Bill Loretelli, whose produce stand just north of Modesto started selling strawberries Wednesday. “The temperatures have broken all kinds of records.”

Loretelli said he likely will sell his crop until early June.

Michael Yang, an agricultural assistant with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno County, said despite the higher temperatures and a shortage of water for some growers, the overall quality of the crop looks good. If anything, the berries may be slightly smaller on some farms.

“You may see that on some farms where the growers have had trouble getting enough water,” Yang said. “The fruit may not size up, but that sweet taste will still be there.”

The region’s strawberry growers, most of whom farm small plots of land, grow mostly two varieties, Chandler and Albion.

The Chandler is the old standby and is preferred by those who like sweeter-tasting fruit. The challenge for farmers and consumers is that the Chandler has a shorter shelf life than the studier Albion.

Customers such as Lassley say the earlier the season starts, the better.

“The strawberries we grow around here are really something to be proud of,” he said, clutching several baskets of berries. “And I am glad they are a little early.”

AT A GLANCE

▪ Strawberries are high in vitamin C and a good source of fiber and potassium.

▪ The fruit should be stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, using a plastic clamshell container or a partially opened plastic bag.

▪ Do not wash the berries until you are ready to eat them.

▪ California grows about 88 percent of the nation’s strawberries. Florida is a distant second.

▪ The fruit brought $2.2 billion in gross income to California growers in 2013, fifth among the state’s farm products. Milk was No. 1, followed by almonds, grapes and cattle.

Sources: California Department of Food and Agriculture, University of California

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