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IN SEASON

A Very Berry Springtime

March 05, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

Ahh, springtime--and a young cook's fancy turns to strawberries. Old cooks' fancies, too, for that matter, and this spring in particular.

The strawberry season started extremely early this year; the Orange County harvest opened around Christmas. But those early berries were fairly pricey and--with this winter's intermittent rains and cold snaps--quality at times has been spotty.

But now is when things should really start picking up. In fact, wholesale strawberry prices are the lowest in memory for this time of year. That doesn't really reflect the California harvest so much as it does the intense competition in the fruit world this spring.

In fact, although things are going very well, this year's California strawberry harvest lags far behind last year's, with 600,000 trays to date, compared with 730,000 trays at this time last year.

The difference, and the reason prices are so much lower, is a combination of an especially hearty winter strawberry harvest in Florida (4.8 million trays this year, double last year's) and increasing pressure from imports of Chilean fruit.

"It gets more like this every year," says Teresa Thorne of the California Strawberry Commission. "There are so many more choices for consumers, we have to literally fight for every piece of the market we get."

Whether these prices hold remains to be seen. Partly as a result of these increased economic pressures, total California strawberry acreage is down 10% from last year.

And there are also a few questions about how well the new strawberry variety, the Camarosa, will hold up in a season as long as this one. From only trace plantings four years ago, it now accounts for almost 100% of the Southern District crop (Oxnard south to San Diego).

"It's hard to say how the Camarosa will hold up," says Thorne. "It's just such a new variety; there's not much history. In the last couple of years we haven't seen any problems, though."

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