More than 119,000 tons of the luscious red fruit valued at more than $179 million had been harvested in the county, an increase of 40 percent over the previous year.
But was this just a quirk? After all, a severe frost in April 2011 had cut wine grape production by 34 percent.
Then, the crop report for 2012 said strawberries were still on top. Their lead had been cut considerably by rebounding wine grape harvests, but strawberries still accounted for nearly a quarter of the county’s agricultural value.
“Strawberries are well represented in this county,” said Robert Hayashi, an Arroyo Grande farmer who has 20 acres planted in strawberries. “The weather here is good for them, so we can grow them almost all year.”
Agricultural officials say there are several reasons behind this new dominance of strawberries including strong demand, good growing conditions and new, more productive varieties.
“There were good, solid prices across the board for both fresh and processed strawberries,” said Martin Settevendemie, county agricultural commissioner. “Last year, growing conditions were great.”
Strawberries also have a distinct advantage over wine grapes. They are very productive.
Because the climate in San Luis Obispo County is conducive to strawberries, farmers can have as many as two plantings and multiple harvests in a year. Wine grapes, on the other hand, produce a single harvest in a year.
“Strawberries surpassed wine grapes by value but not acreage,” said Jackie Crabb, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. “It doesn’t take a lot of land to grow strawberries, but they bring in a lot of money.”
In 2011, for example, there were 10 times as many acres producing wine grapes than strawberries, according to the county crop report. But the high level of productivity allows strawberries to rebound quickly from adverse weather or disease.
With prices and demand high, some growers are beginning to switch some of their acreage from vegetables to strawberries, Hayashi said. Statistics bear this out.
According to the California Strawberry Commission, 9,191 acres of strawberries were planted in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties this year, an increase of 805 acres more than last year — or nearly 10 percent. A summer planting is also planned for 1,435 acres, which is an increase of about 300 acres.
Hayashi said he is not planning on increasing his strawberry acreage. Although they are a lucrative crop when conditions are right, strawberries are sensitive to wind, rain and extreme temperatures.
Scientific research is helping to boost production, said Carolyn O’Donnell with the California Strawberry Commission. More than 15 varieties of strawberries are grown in the state with new varieties under development by growers and the University of California.
These new varieties are bred to produce more fruit and extend growing times. It takes from five to seven years to develop a new variety.
All of this means that strawberry production in San Luis Obispo County should remain strong, giving it a good chance to remain as the county’s top crop.
“If the weather is good and you don’t have any hiccups in production, you should have another great year,” O’Donnell said.
Researchers are also looking to solve one of the strawberry industry’s most vexing controversies — the use of fumigants to rid the soil of pests before the berries are planted. For many years, methyl bromide was the industry standard before it was revealed that it contributed to depletion of the Earth’s protective ozone layer.
Farm officials ordered the use of methyl bromide phased out, but that process is taking longer than thought due to the lack of a viable alternative. Research is underway into finding alternatives and growing strawberries without fumigants.
“This year, methyl bromide is used on about 20 percent of the acreage statewide,” O’Donnell said. “We expect it to be gone very soon.”
In San Luis Obispo County and elsewhere in the state, strawberries are limited to the most temperate areas, away from high temperatures. Locally, that means Oso Flaco, the Nipomo Mesa and Oceano are the main growing areas.
San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County account for about a quarter of all strawberries produced in the state. However, that lags behind the Watsonville/Salinas area where more than 40 percent of the state’s strawberries are grown and the Oxnard area where nearly 30 percent are grown.
“People like to live where strawberries like to grow,” O’Donnell said. “You will find strawberries in the coastal areas.”
Small numbers of strawberries are grown in Orange and San Diego counties and the San Joaquin Valley, but production in these areas is limited by high summertime temperatures. The fruit from those areas is often processed rather than sold fresh, O’Donnell said.