Many farmers market veteran shoppers of a certain age are able to recall when the strawberry season started in late spring and was done by Halloween. Independence Day picnics back then featured the peak season fruit sitting atop shortcake and buried under a mound of whipped cream, a tasty reminder of the fruits of summertime. Today we have come to expect to find fresh, organic strawberries year-round, and at a reasonable price to boot.
Explaining how this non-seasonal bounty came to be isn’t difficult. California accounts for 88% of the 2.3 billion pounds of strawberries grown in the US, according to the California Strawberry Commission. The state’s climate is ideally suited for berry production, and its exposure to the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean provide the cool foggy nights that strawberries thrive in. One acre can produce in excess of 50,000 pounds of strawberries annually, making it the 5th most valuable fruit crop in the state.
The research division of Driscoll’s, arguably the best-known berry grower in the nation, conducts extensive research on strawberries at their facility in Corralitos. Michael Westendorp, Greenhouse manager for Driscoll’s and an Aptos Farmers Market shopper, recently explained that Driscoll’s continually evaluates new strawberry varieties for flavor, size, color and firmness. “We look at thousands of new varieties using proprietary techniques in our research labs every year,” said Westendorp. “In the last 5 years we’ve selected only a handful for further development.”
This type of research is brought about by changes in consumer demand such as the shift from conventionally grown crops to organic, but also by climate change as well. The drought in California has caused a rise in salt levels in the soil of many growers is only one example of the ever-changing challenges facing strawberry producers. New berry varieties have opened up new markets, giving farmers options as to which type of berry they want to grow.
Paul Tao, owner of P & K Farms in Moss Landing, made the business decision years ago that he was going to sell his berries directly to the end user, thanks to the rise in popularity of farmers markets. “Some berry growers go after the processed berry market, where the fruit is either frozen or made into jams and preserves,” Tao said. “Taste isn’t as important in that case. I decided to grow berries with the best flavor. We also sort them for quality at the market.”
To grow a berry that tastes best sounds easy, but it requires a commitment that involves higher production costs, including labor. “Organically grown strawberries don’t give you the high yields as some conventionally grown varieties do. That means the people that pick our berries in the field need to cover more ground to fill a flat,” said Tao. “We have to pay them more as a result. That means we need to get the best price for them to cover costs and make a profit.”
Tao and other farmers market vendors such as Windmill Farm, Vasquez Farm, and Swanton Berry Farm rely heavily on the support of shoppers at farmers markets to make their plans work. Never before have farmers had such a wide array of berry varieties to grow. And choosy market shoppers have a wide choice of luscious strawberries to choose from, almost year- round.