California strawberry growers are working a record number of acres this season, as clear skies and mild temperatures provide a lightning-quick start to this year's harvest and an abundance of berries across the Southland.
More than 28,000 acres of strawberries have been planted statewide, the most ever for an industry that generates more than $800 million in sales and ranks eighth in California agriculture.
The bonanza means consumers already are seeing loads of juicy red berries on supermarket shelves, although it remains to be seen how the higher-than-average production will translate to prices at the checkout line.
As usual this time of year, when production is centered in Southern California, Ventura County growers are leading the way.
With the season shifting into high gear, berry growers in the coastal county could again be on pace to reap a record harvest, continuing a 10-year trend that has made it the state's fastest-growing strawberry producer.
County growers have nearly doubled the amount of land dedicated to strawberries over the last decade, expanding by 85% since 1993, when just 4,760 acres were planted.
The acreage increases -- growers are farming a record 8,794 acres this season -- have changed the face of the farm economy, thrusting strawberries to the top of the list of leading cash crops and establishing the county as the nation's second-largest strawberry producer.
"The growth has been phenomenal," said Ventura farmer Ed Terry, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.
For the first time in 20 years, the die-hard vegetable grower planted a crop of berries this season, drawn by strong consumer demand that has generated steady retail prices and grower returns.
"A lot of our crops just weren't doing well anymore, and we had to go onto something else," Terry said. "Strawberries provided a logical opportunity."
Ventura County is not the only area to have experienced significant growth in recent years.
From 1993 to 2003, strawberry acreage shot up 12% in the Watsonville/Salinas area, the nation's leading berry-growing region. And it climbed 14% in the Orange County/San Diego County area.
In fact, Orange County acreage by itself jumped more than 10% in just the last year, going from 2,219 acres in 2002 to 2,456 in 2003, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
New areas have opened up for those growers, including leases at the former Tustin Marine base and around the adjacent hillsides.
But in a county where high property values put cropland under a constant threat of development, growers doubt that increase will be sustained and say they expect more and more farmland to disappear in coming years.
Paul Murai, who farms 100 acres of strawberries in Irvine at the former El Toro Marine base, said his farming acreage has remained steady but that he expects this year's crop to be a good one. The expected El Nino has not materialized so far, and growers have enjoyed relatively dry weather and no frost.
In Ventura County, the industry's growth is due to a number of factors.
The region has become home in recent years to a steady stream of growers pushed out of other parts of the state by urbanization and other development pressures, agricultural officials say. The county's rich soil and coastal climate also have become favorites of large producers seeking to expand operations and supply berries year-round.
Growth also has been fueled by a push on the part of more growers to add a second growing season: Strawberries are ordinarily planted in the fall and harvested from late December to mid-July, but many farmers are planting a summer crop for harvest in the fall.
Finally, agricultural officials say the industry's expansion has been fueled by a larger move toward high-value cash crops, a trend driven by the scramble to turn a profit in the face of rising land and production costs.
Prime strawberry ground is now among the priciest farmland in California, selling for as much as $49,000 an acre in 2001, nearly double the top prices recorded in 1994. Strawberry acreage was renting for as much as $2,400 an acre in 2001, more than double what it was fetching a decade before.
Earl McPhail, Ventura County agricultural commissioner, said there are concerns that the industry is rapidly approaching a point where growers will no longer be able to turn a profit because there are too many berries and too few markets for them.
"But we're not there yet." McPhail said of the county's top crop, which generated a record $231 million in sales in 2001. "And unless something strange happens market-wise or weather-wise, I believe strawberries are going to be on top for a while."
Farming 12 acres in Oxnard, Kaz Iwamoto is among the rising number of organic berry growers around the state. Land dedicated to organic strawberry production grew more than 50% last year, to 607 acres.