Not many people can resist biting into a plump and sweet strawberry.
During peak season, which lasts from April (or as early as February in San Diego County) through June, California growers ship as many as 4 million trays of strawberries every week, which accounts for 70% of U.S. production.
San Diego County produced about 860,000 trays in 1990.
To ensure the sweetest possible fruit, North County growers such as Takako Ito, who farms 2 1/2 acres of strawberries off Ormsby Street in Vista's Gopher Canyon, pick, sort and distribute their berries the same day.
A constant stream of customers keeps Ito and his wife, Kaiji, busy at their small stand at 1148 Ormsby "from 9 a.m. until we run out."
Ito, a farmer for 48 years, recently decided to grow his fruit without the help of any chemical fertilizer. He worried that his yield of Chandler berries, a variety favored by most local growers, wouldn't be as high. Much to his relief, it surpassed last year's. "I came to realize that too much fertilizer in the ground makes the berries 'blow up' but they don't have much taste," he said.
And, according to Ito, the lack of chemical fertilizers produced tastier berries. The number of regular customers crowding around his stand one sunny afternoon appeared to bear him out. By 1 p.m., not a tray of Ito's sun-ripened berries remained.
Another landmark strawberry stand belongs to Harry and Vera Kawano of Oceanside.
The two North County natives didn't stray far from home to farm. Their stand, half a mile east of the San Luis Rey Mission, is a regular stop for dozens of customers along busy Mission Road.
"Some clients from San Clemente send one representative to buy berries for the whole neighborhood," says Vera. The Kawanos specialize in Chandler berries, a variety Vera favors because of its sweetness. At the Kawano stand, Chandlers are sold in various grades and sizes, including oversized berries with stems attached for dipping.
The Strawberry Tree stand on Manchester Road in Cardiff also features Chandlers.
"These berries go to places I'll never go to," said salesperson Mimi Tokoro, referring to the number of customers who ask to have their berries packed to take on a flight.
Penny Yasuda, general manager of the Strawberry Tree, says the company also maintains a small planting of Sequoias. "They're actually the best-tasting berries," says this second-generation farmer, "but very perishable. Sequoias can't be shipped."
The hardier Chandlers, on the other hand, are ideally suited for the wholesale market, as well as the canning industry. "They're firm and hold up in the fridge much longer," Tokoro said.
Like many other local growers, Yasuda lost some of her first crop to bad weather. She also cut back her acreage because of the water shortage.
But, the dozens of trays of luscious, vine-ripened berries at her stand and others around North County suggest that berry-loving customers will be able to get their fill.
When shopping for strawberries, look for bright red fruit with bright green caps. Strawberries will not ripen after you buy them. Store them, caps still attached in their basket in the refrigerator.
Tokoro recommends placing them in a shallow plastic container lined with a paper towel, and covering them with a lid. Rinse the berries just before using. This prevents the water from breaking down the flavor and texture of the fruit. After rinsing, remove the caps with a sharp knife. Eight medium berries contain about 60 calories and provide 150% of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C.
The strawberry belongs to the genus "Fragaria," the same one as the rose family, which also includes apples and plums.
Ito Grower, 1148 Ormsby St., Vista 92084. Calls 758-8280. Pint baskets, $1.50; 12-basket flat, $15. Open daily at 9 a.m. until sold out. Sells from stand only.
Vera Kawano's Stand, Mission Ave., half a mile east of Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, on north side of the road. Calls 439-6707. Call for special orders. Stand open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., including Sunday. Strawberries with stems: $3 a pint; 3-pack of large berries, $5.
Strawberry Tree, 3111 Manchester Ave., Cardiff 92007. Calls 436-6015. Stand open 9 a.m.-6 p.m., including Sunday. Premium berries: $6.75 a 3-pack; extra fancy with stems, $8.25 a 3-pack.