Ventura County's strawberry fields have burst with life during the past month as warm weather has swollen the harvests of growers.
With temperatures at unseasonably high levels through much of March, strawberries have ripened faster and some farmers have kept pace by putting more people in the fields and stretching the workweek to a sixth day.
As the county's strawberry season enters its peak, growers say the recent heat wave helped them pull out of an early season slump caused by cold temperatures and heavy rainfall.
According to the California Strawberry Commission, Ventura County strawberry farmers produced 3 million trays of the sweet red fruit during the first three weeks of March.
Plentiful yields this month have brought the number of trays picked since strawberry season began in mid-December to almost 4.9 million--about 400,000 more than at the same point last year, when strawberry farmers went on to produce more than 16 million trays, a county record.
Statewide, about 7.6 million strawberry trays have been picked as of Saturday. Ventura County typically produces about 20% of the state's strawberries each season, according to the commission.
"We got started late this year, with the amount of cold weather and rain. The numbers were really slow in gathering," said Mike Conroy, who has 130 people picking strawberries in his fields east of Ventura.
Oxnard strawberry grower Scott Deardorff said he has added about 30 field hands to his payroll during the past two weeks to keep up with his more than 100 acres of berries.
"It's been great, weatherwise," Deardorff said. "Our volume has gone up 50% to 60% because of the weather." He said his farm produced 30,000 trays of berries last week and is expected to turn out about 50,000 this week.
In the first two weeks of March, a high pressure system over Southern California caused temperatures in Ventura County to hover mostly in the 70s, about 10 degrees higher than normal, according to the National Weather Service. In Oxnard, the heart of the county's strawberry farmland, temperatures jumped into the mid-80s last week.
County temperatures have dropped back to normal springtime levels during the past few days, with daytime highs in the 60s and lower 70s. Strawberry growers say the current weather is just perfect, now that the warm spell has helped them erase early season woes.
"It's still spring, and the days are getting longer, the nights are getting warmer," said Deardorff.
"It's a combination of the heat and the sun," said Ben Faber, a biologist at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Ventura. "We're getting clear days with no overcast, so the plants are getting a lot of energy. It's right in that area where they really like it."
David Cook, a salesman for Deardorff's farming company, said the favorable climactic shift comes just as the Easter holiday approaches, a time of year when grocery stores traditionally have big strawberry promotions.
Cook said the wholesale price for a tray of strawberries--which contain about 12 pints--ranges between $10 and $12. Major grocery store chains across the L.A. Basin are selling strawberries for about $1.50 to $2 per pint, with some dropping prices to $1 a pint for the Easter holiday.
"If the warm weather keeps up, I think production will be very heavy in April," Cook said.
Continued high temperatures would not necessarily be a good thing for growers. They could wind up with an overabundance.
"It's kind of a mixed bag," said Rex Laird, head of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. "Typically, if demand remains constant [and production climbs], then the price goes down."