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Freeze may be fruitful for strawberry farms

January 30, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Maybe the Beatles were right -- strawberry fields are forever.

It turns out that instead of destroying California's crop, this month's freeze might have saved it.

Farmers were harvesting an unprecedented number of strawberries until the freeze. The pending surplus could have sent prices for early-season fruit crashing.

"We were probably headed for an economic disaster," said Bill Reiman, a major Oxnard grower and secretary-treasurer of the California Strawberry Commission.

He estimated that the big chill could cut winter production by as much as 70% by destroying flowers and immature fruit that would have ripened in February. Assuming mild weather in coming weeks, Reiman said, most farmers should be able to overcome that expected dip and end the season with a harvest at least as big as last year's.

Bad weather always destroys some fruit each winter, he said, noting: "Usually it is rain; this year it was the freeze."

According to the commission's preliminary figures, California farmers harvested 2.1 million trays of berries this month. That compares with 2.8 million trays picked in January 2006.

January and February are the lowest-producing months for California strawberries, which account for more than $1.5 billion of the state's annual $32-billion farm output.

"When you look at the big picture, these months are just a small part of the harvest period, but because it is early in the season, the fruit has the highest margins," said Mark Murai, president of the Watsonville, Calif.-based strawberry commission.

Unlike citrus and many other fruits that have only one crop annually, strawberry plants produce much of the year.

They also can benefit from the cold: Chilling temperatures slow growth of the plants aboveground for a time. But the roots continue to develop, creating a more vigorous plant that will produce more robust fruit when the weather warms.

"We are going to have some great berries just full of sugar," Murai said.

Citrus farmers took the biggest hit from the freeze. Icy nighttime temperatures for as many as five straight nights in some parts of the state damaged an estimated $800 million of California's $1.5-billion citrus crop. The cold also destroyed about $100 million of avocados.

Other farm products, such as Ventura County's celery crop, are starting to rebound, the California Farm Bureau Federation reported.

Farmers were able to remove the frost-damaged tops of the plants, which are typically trimmed regardless of weather damage, and managed to save most of the celery crop, the Sacramento-based bureau reported.

Projecting weather-related farm damage is always a tricky business.

California farmers last year asked the federal government for $135 million in disaster aid to help compensate San Joaquin Valley dairies for the deaths of as many as 30,000 cows and calves that succumbed to the extreme heat in July. Some in the industry predicted that the loss of animals and the stress the heat put on survivors would reduce milk production for the year.

But it turns out that California cows produced a record amount of milk last year, the farm bureau said.

The state's dairies produced 4.5 billion gallons of milk last year, up 3% from 2005, according to preliminary figures. Despite the deaths, the dairy cow population rose 1.5% to 1.8 million in 2006. And on average, the animals produced 212 gallons a month, or about 1 gallon more than in the previous year.

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