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Ventura County

Strawberry Growers Pick Up the Pace

Agriculture: The county's 2002 harvest has already broken the single-year record as farmers devote more land to the crop.

July 28, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County strawberry growers reaped a record harvest this year, as good weather and an expanded number of plantings combined to fuel production.

Through mid-July, county growers had pumped out 26.6 million trays of berries. That compares with 21.4 million trays during the same period last year and 23.4 million trays for all of 2001, the previous record yield.

Although the main harvest is all but over now, the bumper crop has accounted for one-third of all strawberries picked statewide so far this year.

And while the value of those berries won't be known for months, several growers said prices this season were as high as they have been in years.

"It was a spectacular strawberry year for anyone involved in the industry in Ventura County," said Oxnard grower Christopher Deardorff, who farms 200 acres of strawberries near Camarillo.

"Not only was production up, but prices were fabulous," the fourth-generation grower said. "I think we are seeing an influx of [growers] moving into the area because this is one of the premier growing districts in the state."

Over the last decade, no area of the state has planted more new strawberry acreage than Ventura County.

It remains California's second-largest strawberry-producing region behind the Watsonville/Salinas area, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

County growers had 8,582 acres in production this year, a 10% increase over last year and double the acreage dedicated to strawberries a decade ago.

The added acreage accounts in part for the boost in production, growers say. However, farmers say they benefited this year from an extremely cold winter followed by a cool, dry spring. The cold temperatures held back early-season production, prompting the harvest to explode in the spring and early summer.

Agricultural officials say that kind of success has made Ventura County a desirable place for strawberry growers to set up operations.

And it has firmly placed strawberries among the top cash crops in the county's $1-billion agricultural industry.

The crop was valued at $186 million in 2000, second only to lemons.

"The market has been awfully good for strawberry growers," county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail said. "When you look at the crop report, the total dollar value keeps going up every year."

Not all the news is good on the strawberry front.

Ventura County farmland is now among the priciest in California, largely because of demand for the fertile strawberry-growing soil of the Oxnard Plain.

Prime strawberry acreage sold for as much as $49,000 an acre last year, nearly double the top prices recorded in 1994, according to a survey by the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.

But while landowners have benefited from a boost in values, the high prices have made it hard for newcomers--particularly small farmers--to break into the business.

Moreover, the higher values also have translated into higher rents, making it increasingly difficult for tenant farmers to make a profit.

Take Northern California-based Global Ag, a coalition of Watsonville-area strawberry growers who attempted two years ago to break into the competitive market to the south.

The company paid $2,500 an acre to rent 20 to 30 acres near Oxnard, spokesman Charles Boyles said.

The group set up another strawberry-growing operation in Baja California.

The Baja operation was a big money loser while the Oxnard farm barely broke even. Boyles sent a letter this month to county officials alerting them that Global Ag would be shutting its Oxnard operation and laying off dozens of workers.

"We wanted to give our employees fair warning that come September, when they would expect to be coming back, there will be no more Global Ag," Boyles said. "It's a tough deal down there. But I'm sure there will be someone in line behind us ready to grab that land."

Encouraged in part by this year's boost in production and solid prices, veteran Camarillo grower Michael Conroy is among those betting on a bull market.

After he was unable this year to fully meet customer demand, Conroy said he decided to increase his strawberry operation next year to 150 acres--a 50% increase.

Now he is just hoping he made the right decision.

"There are no guarantees, it's a crapshoot at best," he said. "There are so many new players in this business, and we're just like everyone else trying to find our particular niche."

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