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Rains Dampen Strawberry Harvest : Agriculture: Flooding has rotted about half of early crop. But observers say it’s too early to predict long-range price hikes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An angry Mother Nature is spoiling much of Orange County’s strawberry crop just as the fruit begins to bloom, hurting some farmers and boosting wholesale prices about 25% above normal for this time of year, according to agriculture officials.

Flooding has already rotted about half the early harvest, but because the total is still undetermined, county Deputy Agriculture Commissioner John Ellis said it is too early to determine whether this year’s record-breaking rainfall will affect prices when the peak strawberry season arrives this spring. Because the rains destroyed only the first of the harvests, Ellis said, growers have time to recover some of their losses.

Irvine grower Hiroshi Fujishige said he depends on early production to cover initial planting expenses, which run $10,000 per acre on his Irvine and Anaheim farms, which total 107 acres. The farmland was so saturated that he was unable to walk through the fields in recent weeks, leaving virtually 100% of his harvest to rot.

“Our early production is a disaster,” said the 72-year-old grower, who called this his worst season in more than 40 years of farming. “We’re in the hole so bad, we’re going to have to do very well for the rest of the harvest to begin to profit.”

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But an undaunted George Murai, whose 190-acre strawberry farm in Irvine was spared serious damage, said he feels lucky the storms came early in the year. Although he had to strip half his fields of spoiled fruit, he said the rains only delayed his strawberry season.

“It looks like this storm is just bringing us short-term problems,” Murai said. “Most of our profits are in February through April, when the volume comes in. So if the rains came in March, we would have experienced serious damage.”

Officials from the state Department of Food and Agriculture are still forecasting a decent strawberry season. While wholesale strawberry prices usually average about $2 a pint at this time, the fruit is currently selling for about 50 cents more per pint. Prices fall as low as 80 cents a pint during summer.

Orange County growers supplied almost 8% of the state’s strawberry crop last year, a total that ranked them fifth among California counties and earned them $27 million, Ellis said. Officials said they cannot predict how farmers will fare this year.

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“It’s hard to speculate. Just because a grower experienced some damage doesn’t mean prices will be expensive throughout the season,” said Emma Suarez, a state Agriculture Department spokeswoman. “The grower may mitigate that loss some other way to remain competitive. It’s the basics of supply-and-demand economics.”

Because they are sensitive to climate changes, strawberries require special maintenance that includes careful labor and coolers to reduce spoilage. The tender fruit bruises easily when pelted by raindrops, and the fruit becomes overripe and splits when fields are too drenched for workers to enter.

But because Orange County’s climate is one of the best in the world, local farmers usually can begin to harvest early in the year, said Victor Voth, a strawberry researcher at the University of California South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine.

“This first harvest is the extra cream of the crop, that’s all,” he said.

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Devastated farmers such as Fujishige are expected to salvage some profits by selling damaged strawberries for use in syrups, extracts and frozen products.


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