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IN SEASON/RUSS PARSONS

Strawberry Fields Forever

January 21, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Strawberries used to herald the beginning of spring. This year's Southern California harvest began Christmas week. Some supermarkets are already offering them on special.

This isn't new, exactly. Florida produce has been shaking up the calendar for years, and Orange County and San Diego growers have done their part.

What's been different this year, and the last two years as well, is the sheer volume of strawberries being shipped out of Southern California. Though the harvest in the past averaged something like 100,000 pounds a week in early January, in the last three years the average has climbed to 186,000 pounds.

Of course, averages are difficult to pin down in a crop as fickle as strawberries grown at a time of year as treacherous as this. Rain can flatten the harvest completely (in the horrible year of 1995, shipments for the same week were 5,000 pounds).

"Florida used to have the winter and early spring to themselves; they don't any more," says Teresa Thorne of the California Strawberry Commission.

Most winters, Florida does still dominate the harvest. This year, for example, Florida had a first-week haul of 336,000 pounds, over 75% more than California. Most of those strawberries stay on the East Coast, though. More important to consumers, Florida growers haven't reduced their acreage much, meaning that California's berries are pure gravy, swelling the total supply and driving down prices.

This early harvest is becoming more and more important for the California strawberry industry, which picks fruit at least 10 months of the year. In fact, acreage in Orange County and San Diego is up 18% since last year (total acreage in the state is up 7%).

The big boost came from a new berry variety, the Camarosa, which was introduced about five years ago. Less susceptible to weather problems and more consistently prolific than the previous favorite, Chandler, it now accounts for 95% of the acreage in the Orange County-San Diego growing area and 71% of the acreage in Oxnard.

"The Camarosa is a lot less susceptible to weather than the Chandler," says Thorne, "but the main reason the Camarosa is liked from a grower's perspective is that the Chandler had a lot of peaks and valleys in its harvest. The Camarosa is much more even."

To take fullest advantage of the boom in early strawberries, buy the darkest berries. Unlike the familiar Chandler, which is ripe when it is bright red, Camarosas aren't really ready until they're maroon, almost black.

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Farmers' Market Pick of the Week: Jerry Larh from Desert Hot Springs has organic Chinese spinach (ong choi), amaranth (yin choi) and Malabar spinach (san choi). He sells at the Santa Monica and San Dimas markets on Wednesday. Source: Carolyn Olney of the Southland Farmers' Market Assn.

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