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California is the nation's leading producer of strawberries. In 2013, more than 2.3 billion pounds of strawberries were harvested. That amounts to 88 percent of the country's total fresh and frozen strawberries. California’s unique coastal environment with its western ocean exposure provides moderate temperatures year round. Warm sunny days and cool foggy nights are the perfect combination for growing strawberries.
The value of the California strawberry crop is approximately $2.6 billion. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, strawberries are the sixth most valuable fruit crop produced in California.
Where Strawberries are Grown
In California, strawberries are planted on nearly 40,000 acres. Coastal California’s rich sandy soil and temperate climate extends the strawberry growing season 500 miles up the coast from San Diego to the Monterey Bay. Strawberry production shifts between north and south with the changing seasons. Fall and winter production starts in October in Ventura County and reaches south into Orange and San Diego Counties in late December or early January. Production in the south generally extends into April or May. Staggered planting schedules in the Santa Maria area bridges the seasons, with the harvest beginning in March, and continues into the late fall.
California's northern strawberry growing region is south of San Francisco and includes Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties and some acreage in Santa Clara and San Benito counties. Watsonville and Salinas account for almost half of the state's strawberry acreage. Shipments from northern areas begin in April, peak in May or June, and continue through November.
Growing & Harvesting
Strawberries are grown as an annual crop in California. The plants are first grown in a nursery and then transplanted into the fields by growers. In the northern districts, plants are replaced each fall at the end of harvest, and lay dormant through the winter. In the Oxnard and Santa Maria regions,plantings in late July through September provide strawberries through the fall and winter.
California's 12-month growing season contributes to higher strawberry yields per acre than any other growing area. Other areas of the country have shorter production cycles, from an average of five-months to as short as a few weeks.
All California strawberries are hand-picked to ensure only the highest quality berries are harvested. Strawberry plants continually produce new fruit throughout their season. During peak season plants are harvested every three days.
Fresh strawberries are rushed to coolers, where huge fans remove the field heat, and then shipped within 24 hours on refrigerated trucks or air freighted to their final destination. Strawberries selected for processing are gently washed, sorted and frozen quickly to ensure the best flavor and appearance. Berries are sliced, pureed or kept whole for freezing.
Around the World
Of all the California strawberries produced each year, approximately 75 percent are harvested for the fresh market, while about 25 percent are frozen for the processed market. Approximately 16.3 percent of the fresh California strawberry crop is annually exported. Canada, Mexico, Japan and Hong Kong are the largest importers of California strawberries. Canada receives the majority of California’s fresh and frozen exports.