California Strawberry Fields in Danger as Another Soaking Looms

The state’s $3 billion industry is weeks behind schedule and the damage isn’t over. Customers can expect higher prices.

(Bloomberg) — Already submerged strawberry fields across California are girding for yet another deluge, threatening a $3 billion industry in the US’s largest food hub.

“We were supposed to be picking berries in two or three weeks,” said Soren Bjorn, president of the Americas for top berry distributor Driscoll’s Inc. “That’s clearly not going to happen.”

The latest in a torrent of downpours is expected to strike next week as a new atmospheric river crashes ashore. After the state’s driest three-year period on record, the California storms are bringing desperately needed water but at great economic and human cost. More than 20 people have died due to the heavy rain and flooding and extensive crop losses in the biggest US food producing state will contribute to supply shortfalls and grocery-store inflation.

For California’s strawberry industry, flooding from breached levees has made it impossible to even begin to assess damages in the evacuated farming community of Pajaro. Driscoll’s is bracing for a big chunk of crops there to be lost, said Bjorn, who estimates about $30,000 is spent to grow a single acre. 

In the Monterey Bay region south of San Francisco, about 20% of strawberry fields have been hit by flooding, according to the California Strawberry Commission, which represents all of the state’s growers. Last year, about 40,000 acres of strawberries were planted in the state and accounts for roughly 90% of US production, according to the commission.

Consumers shouldn’t see a gap in availability right now, commission spokesman Jeff Cardinale said. As far as the underwater berries, it’s too early to know how the market might be impacted, he said.

While it is unknown how badly this year’s harvests will be hit overall, strawberry prices almost are certain to rise. A producer price index for the berries rose 8.7% last year on top of a 41% spike the year before, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 12-ounce package of fresh strawberries was $3.17 last month on average, consumer prices show, though some retailers will charge double or even triple that depending on location, demand and availability. Prices tend to inch lower in winter, when crop production in other places like Florida and Mexico starts to ramp up, but that dip is expected to be short-lived.

“There’s going to be an impact on national supply,” said Nick Wishnatzki of Wish Farms, a fourth-generation year-round berry supplier to the Americas. Wish Farms, whose crop portfolio is about 60% strawberries, has lost 5% of acreage so far and is now trying to assess damage from the latest storms.

“Things have been pretty tough for us,” Wishnatzki said. The company already is about four weeks behind its production schedule. “It’s going to be really hard to make up.”

The so-called atmospheric rivers behind the recent soakings are long plumes of moisture that rise out of the central Pacific and travel across the sky, landing on California and the west coast of North America. They can deliver as much water as passes through the mouth of Mississippi River. Although they can occur in other parts of the world, in California they are crucial for providing the state with its annual water needs, but also threaten terrible damage.

Read More: California Crippling Drought Is Almost Over After Deluge of Rain

This winter, the weather has been so intense that Southern California had its first blizzard warning since 1989. It has rained and snowed so much that most of California’s drought could end by June, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center said Thursday.

“We get past one storm and 48 hours later here comes another one,” said Peter Navarro, a berry farmer in Santa Cruz County. “Unfortunately, any kind of rain we get now is not helpful.”

–With assistance from Brian K Sullivan and Elizabeth Elkin.

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