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Recovery Period : Strawberry, vegetable and flower crops were heavily hit by the rains. But the effect on consumers is mixed.

February 20, 1992|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As muddied fields and rain-soaked crops recover from pounding rains, Ventura County farmers continue to appraise crop damage and contend with ever-unpredictable Mother Nature.

Strawberry, vegetable--especially celery--and fresh-cut flower crops were the most heavily hit during the inclement weather. According to Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail, the deluge particularly affected growers near Calleguas Creek. About 900 acres of Oxnard farmland were submerged when the creek overflowed and broke through an earthen bank. "About 10 or 12 farmers were affected in that area," he said.

Agricultural officials estimate that total losses countywide amount to more than $5.3 million.

What do these losses mean for consumers?

Because vegetable growers from outside Ventura County are able to fill any shortage in supply, those prices are remaining stable.

The same, however, cannot be said for the strawberry market. This time of year, the United States relies primarily on production from Ventura County growers. The local season usually lasts from January to May and, in some cases, to early June. "Right now, we're it," McPhail said. "When you're not picking, it will effect supplies."

Because supplies are down, prices have risen--but the increase is not expected to last long. Although some strawberry plants will be lost to decay, Mike Conroy, owner of Western Berry Farms in Oxnard, expects most to survive.

What hurt growers and supplies most, Conroy said, was some crops losing up to 90% of harvest-ready fruit. But because plants produce throughout their season, supplies will soon be back to normal.

McPhail expects that supplies will remain low for a couple of days and then return to normal.

"It's early, but it is by no means a disaster for the big picture," Conroy said. "We'll work our way out of it."

Conroy explained a typical strawberry season this way:

During the early months, growers refer to the harvest as a "primary crop." The "main crop," a grower's most lucrative period, comes next. "The production begins to tail out toward the end of the season," Conroy said.

The rains were bad, but it could have been much worse.

"If this (inclement weather) happened six to eight weeks down the road, it would have been devastating because we would have been into the main crop," Conroy said.

For the fresh-cut flower growers, the picture is more bleak. Valentine's Day is usually the most lucrative time for flower sales. While some growers were in the midst of harvesting for the day, the pounding rains will make it difficult for growers to prepare muddied fields for future plantings.

"They have some real busy days coming up soon where they make a lot of their money," said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. "If they can't plant their fields, it will pose a problem for them."

Besides Valentine's Day, "a lot of fresh flowers are sold for Easter, Secretary's Day and Mother's Day," he said.

"For the flower growers," McPhail said, "the storm hit at their biggest time of the year."

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