NORTHERN SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY — Strawberries, the leadoff hitter in the Modesto area's fresh fruit season, pack as much punch as ever this year.
"They're beautiful," Bill Loretelli, who grows the fruit north of Modesto, said Monday. "They're looking really good."
The Northern San Joaquin Valley produces a minute amount of strawberries compared with coastal regions of California, and the season is brief.
But they are a welcome start to a valley growing season that will bring cherries, apricots, peaches and other fruit in greater volume in the months ahead.
Loretelli will start selling strawberries at his Claratina Avenue produce stand Friday a little late because gas main work on the road has limited access.
He said the early spring rain did not harm the berries because they had not yet developed the sugars that, combined with moisture, can cause rot.
"With fair weather, we'll go to the end of May, first part of June," Loretelli said. "It depends on the weather. It's springtime. Things could change."
The valley crop adds slightly to the statewide volume, which will hit its annual peak of nearly 8 million trays per week around May 1, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
"Weekly availability will be heavy and consistent each week through April," the group told retailers on its website. "Volume will be plentiful for Mother's Day."
Virtually all of the state's crop is picked by hand, with a high labor cost, but consumers can get the fruit at reasonable prices thanks to high-yield varieties and other advances.
And they're hard to beat for flavor and nutrients. A cup of strawberries has 140 percent of the recommended daily vitamin C.
Local strawberries will turn up at at least some farmers markets and grocery stores as the season advances. Berries from somewhere in California are available year-round.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 5780-2385.
AT A GLANCE
Strawberries in California:
The San Joaquin Valley has just 128 of the 40,192 acres of strawberries in California this year. Merced County accounts for most of the valley share, including fruit that goes to processors. Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties have several small farms offering fresh strawberries midspring.
About a third of the state's strawberries grow in the Watsonville-Salinas area, which produces from April to November. Southern coastal areas, from Santa Barbara to San Diego counties, combine to cover all months of the year.
Strawberries were No. 6 in gross income among California farm products in 2011, bringing an estimated $1.95 billion.
Strawberries were the state's No. 14 farm export in 2011, bringing an estimated $336 million. Canada is by far the biggest market, followed by Japan.
California had 92 percent of the nation's strawberry volume in 2012. Florida was second, Oregon third.
A cup of strawberries provides 140 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C. It also provides 12 percent of the fiber, 8 percent of the folate and 6 percent of the potassium.
Strawberries are high in antioxidants, which may protect against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and memory loss.
Fresh strawberries should be refrigerated, unwashed, in their clamshell package or in another large container. Place a dry paper towel between layers. The berries should be washed under a gentle spray of cool water just before using. For best flavor, let them reach room temperature.
Did you know
Strawberries are part of the rose family, as are apples, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, cherries and almonds.
Wild strawberries are native to California and many other temperate parts of the world.
The average American ate about 9 pounds of strawberries in 2010.
The average strawberry has about 200 seeds on its skin.
On the Net: California Strawberry Commission: www.calstrawberry.com
Sources: California Strawberry Commission, California Department of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture