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Berry fields bursting despite rain, insects

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

His six-acre Buhach Road 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 rain 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.

Despite battles with the forces of nature this year, Lo said his sales are strong. He sells strawberries at his roadside stand and at the Saturday flea market on G Street.

Strawberries in the county will be ripening from now to 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 strawberry: Chandler, Albion and Camarosa. According to the California Strawberry Commission, Chandler is the most common berry grown in the San Joaquin Valley, and most of the berries go 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 number 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. That along with a big crop loss because of hail a couple of years ago prompted many struggling growers in the county to get out of the strawberry business.

In grocery stores, consumers find good deals on strawberries.

Because the crop was delayed by unseasonably cool weather, Florida strawberries are hitting the marketplace at the same time as California strawberries.

California accounts for 59 percent of strawberries grown in the United States. Florida produces just 11 percent. California's main strawberry growing area is in the Central Coast region.

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

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