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Cultivating a Winning Crop : Strawberries Take Root and Thrive in County's Perfect Climate

Centerpiece

May 18, 1995|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask Mike Conroy why he moved from Watsonville to Oxnard in 1972 and he will rattle off the answer before you can say strawberry shortcake.

There was the climate--warm days and cool nights were perfect for growing strawberries--and the then-untapped strawberry market.

Simply put, it was an ideal situation.

Like other strawberry growers before him, and many more since, Conroy recognized the potential of the area and planted himself in Ventura County, buying 200 acres.

Since then, the county has become so popular among strawberry growers that in 1994 it produced 4,400 acres of the crop with a total value of $110 million, accounting for 22% of the state's total output, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

And there you have the reason for Oxnard's 12-year-old California Strawberry Festival, the tribute to Ventura County's second leading crop behind lemons. This year's festival, featuring an array of edible strawberry concoctions, musical entertainment, arts and crafts and other family activities, will be held Saturday and Sunday at Oxnard's College Park.

With all the hoopla surrounding strawberries, one might be led to believe they were always bountiful in Ventura County. Not so. Not in an area that for decades was dominated by lima beans and sugar beets.

According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of the Census, there were only seven acres of strawberries produced in Ventura County in 1935.

Hardly earth-shattering numbers, but it was a start.

Strawberry production really began to pick up steam in the mid-1950s. By 1960, according to reports by the University of California Agricultural Extension Service, there were about 550 acres of strawberries in Ventura County.

By 1969, the figure had jumped to 915 acres, and in 1972, to 1,370 acres. Strawberry production tapered off because of drought in the late 1970s but quickly recovered and has been holding strong since the mid-1980s.

"When I arrived, Oxnard was the primary growing area between the Northern California and Southern California regions," Conroy said. "Back then, San Diego and Orange County were the major players in the south. But as ground became more expensive in Orange County, and there was an infringement of urban population, a lot of growers moved to the Oxnard district."

The move made sense: Oxnard's climate has long been suited for growing the weather-sensitive strawberry.

Surrounded by mountains to the east and the ocean to the west, the fertile Oxnard Plain is the beneficiary of sunny days and cool nights--mild temperatures in general.

The labor-intensive strawberry season begins in late August or early September as the growers fumigate, fertilize and prepare the fields for planting. Planting itself starts around the end of September and, depending on the weather, the growing season lasts through late December or early January.

Finally, the harvest takes place between January and May. Timing of the harvest is critical because heat can seriously damage the crop. Growers in Southern California harvest earlier than those in the north, because the south heats up slightly earlier in the year.

Throughout the growth cycle, farmers combat the various pests interested in the fruits of their labor. There's the Two Spot spider mite, aphids and various worms. In addition to using pesticides, the growers also fight the bad pests with good pests such as predator spider mites.

Assuming all goes well, local growers are generally among the first in the state to get their strawberries to market. Most growers contract with shippers to deliver their strawberries, while some do their own shipping.

Curiously, we don't consume most of the strawberries grown in our back yard. About 70% of the local strawberry crop is shipped to the eastern United States.

"That's where the big demand is," Conroy said. "They might have two to three weeks of fruit stand-type berries there, but we're the ones who supply the big city chains."

More efficient irrigation, more durable and improved varieties of strawberries and other advances throughout the industry have led to substantially more efficient production over the years.

County growers produced an average of 23.1 tons of strawberries per acre in 1972, according to the state Strawberry Commission. Productivity increased to 33 tons per acre in 1994. That's particularly significant when you consider it costs about $10,000 an acre to grow and harvest strawberries.

Conroy said the number of field workers per acre of strawberries varies depending on the variety of berry because some are easier to pick than others. He said the berry he is currently growing, the Chander variety, takes an average of 2 1/2 workers per acre.

Workers are paid differently from ranch to ranch, said Conroy. Some are paid about $1.30 per crate, others are paid an hourly rate plus incentives. He said his workers are receive $3 per hour plus 80 cents a crate.

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