WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- California's strawberry farmers have planted slightly more acreage for 1999, marking a milestone for an industry significantly impacted by the 1996 cyclospora scare.
According to the California Strawberry Commission, most of the increase has occurred in Ventura Country, where 6,700 additional strawberry acres have been planted for the coming season, an increase of 15% over last year. The region is responsible for raising early-season crops, said officials.
"If you go back to 1996, that cyclospora incident had an impact on the industry -- we lost quite a bit of acreage the following season and we've been rebuilding since then," said Dave Riggs, CSC president.
Strawberries were the primary suspect when the outbreak of the water-borne parasitic disease began in Texas in June 1996. The ensuing panic sent sales plummeting as nervous retailers pulled product from the shelves while federal health officials investigated the source of the epidemic, which sickened thousands around the United States and in Canada.
"The farmers took a real substantial loss as a result of that [incident], and as you recall, there was misinformation about the source," he said.
Within months, authorities traced the cyclospora to raspberries imported from Central America. However, the determination was too late to salvage strawberry sales for the summer months, when the vast majority of them are sold.
According to Riggs, the recovering industry in the state saw 73 million trays harvested last year, down slightly from the 77 million trays brought in during 1997. This decrease, however, was due more to El Nino-related weather phenomena during the early growing season than to lingering adverse publicity surrounding the '96 cyclospora crisis.
The improved '99 outlook has encompassed virtually the entire growing area. Besides Ventura, light acreage increases are also reported in the Monterey and Santa Cruz county growing districts, which represent 45% of the state's total strawberry acreage. Acreage has remained relatively stable in the Santa Maria district, with 3,700 acres, though there is a slight decrease in the Orange and San Diego county districts, where urban growth is crimping traditional agricultural endeavors. There, acreage dropped from 2,800 acres to 2,500 acres, said Riggs.
This coming season also marks a shift in the number of varieties planted, in response to both retailer and consumer demand.
"Farmers have increased plantings of newly released varieties -- Diamante and Aromas, as well as Camarosa," said Riggs. "Diamante now represents almost 1,000 acres in the northern district, while Aromas comprises 526 acres and Camarosa represents 10% of the district's acreage."
California's strawberry region, which benefits from the warm, moderating oceanside climate, stretches from San Diego in the south to the Monterey peninsula in the north.
A study just released by the CSC shows that consumers did not allow the cyclospora scare to permanently affect their consumption habits.
According to the poll, the strawberry user base remains at an "enviable" 94%. Additionally, more than 40% of heavy strawberry users and 20% of light strawberry users said that they were eating more strawberries than a year ago.
More important for retailers, more than 50% of frequent strawberry buyers stated in the most recent poll that they have switched stores to shop an advertised strawberry feature, while one-third said that they patronized another store in response to an out-of-stock strawberry display.