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Strawberry Crop Increases but Still Paltry : Agriculture: Despite heavy rains, county growers' harvest is up 6.3% over '92 but is far short of amount plucked in '91.


Despite bad weather earlier this year, strawberry growers in Orange County have harvested 3.86 million trays of the sweet red fruit since the 1993 season began.

That's up 6.3% from 3.6 million trays in the same period a year ago. But the increase isn't cause for joy. Prices are unchanged from last year while growers' costs increased tremendously because of heavy rains earlier this year.

David Riggs, president of the California Strawberry Advisory Board in Watsonville, said Orange County's 1993 yield is also pretty paltry when compared to the 5.7 million trays that were plucked in 1991. A tray holds 12 of the pint containers in which strawberries typically are packaged for sale in the grocery stores.

It is only because "you're comparing a bad year to a bad year" that the increase from 1992 looks good, Riggs said.

This year's harvest in Orange County is slightly better than last year despite the loss of a month of harvesting days in the rains that soaked the county during late February and early March--the midpoint of the normal strawberry harvest season.

The harvest in the rest of the state is down. The 47.1 million trays picked so far are 7% fewer than the 50.6 million trays harvested by this time last year, according to California Strawberry Advisory Board tallies.

The rains not only cut into the harvest, they also forced growers to rely heavily on costly chemicals to kill molds and fungi that otherwise would have decimated the crop.

Even so, the waste was fairly heavy.

Larry Simmons, president of State Wide Sales Co. in Anaheim, said that at one point during the season pickers for his company had to throw out 60% of the berries they harvested from State Wide's 250 acres in Huntington Beach and Anaheim.

Growers weren't able to pass the costs of spraying and dumping onto consumers, however, and strawberries have been selling $1.49 to $1.79 a pint in grocery stores, about the same as last spring.

"In the long run, it's better to have the rain," Riggs said. "But economically, in the short run, it hit hard."

Final figures for the 1993 season won't be available for almost a year--the Orange County Agricultural Commissioner doesn't release the official annual tally until June. For 1992, however, the total value of strawberry sales in Orange County was $40.4 million. That was down 8% from $44 million for the bumper crop of 1991, according to the agricultural commissioner's office. Acreage devoted to strawberries in the county dipped 5% to 1,731 in 1992 from 1,820 in 1991.

Overall, agricultural products in Orange County generated $251.7 million in sales, down 15% from 1991.

The Million-Dollar List

The latest Orange County Agricultural Commission's report shows 17 agricultural industries with a wholesale value of $1 million or more for 1992. The combined value of $251.7 million represents a 15% decrease in comparison to 1991. Wholesale value in millions:

Product 1992 % change Nursery stock, $131.4 -7.2 Strawberries 40.4 -2.2 Tomatoes 17.4 13.0 Valencia oranges 15.5 -36.0 Peppers 9.5 -9.5 Green beans 7.4 1.4 Avocados 6.3 -72.0 Celery 4.5 - 6.3 Lemons 3.6 2.9 Cabbage 2.5 -38.0 Squash 2.2 -58.0 Beef cattle 1.8 80.0 Cucumbers 1.5 -25.0 Cauliflower 1.4 -22.2 Lettuce 1.3 -50.0 Corn 1.2 59.5 Grapefruit 1.0 -41.1

Source: Orange County Agricultural Commission; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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