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Valley’s strawberry season starts early

Monty Dhimmar of Modesto buys strawberries and honey from Michelle Brown at Loretelli Farms on Wednesday afternoon  in Modesto. This year’s strawberry season arrived a couple of weeks early because of the warm weather.
Monty Dhimmar of Modesto buys strawberries and honey from Michelle Brown at Loretelli Farms on Wednesday afternoon in Modesto. This year’s strawberry season arrived a couple of weeks early because of the warm weather. jlee@modbee.com

The region’s strawberry season got off to an early start this year, thanks to the warm and dry weather of late winter.

That weather does not bode well for much of the agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, not in this fourth year of drought, but it does mean a treat for people who have been craving the berries.

“We’re about two weeks ahead,” said Bill Loretelli, whose produce stand just north of Modesto started selling strawberries Wednesday. “The temperatures have broken all kinds of records.”

The Valley plays a tiny role in the state’s industry – just 91 of the 37,438 acres this year, according to the California Strawberry Commission. The rest is in the coastal belt between Santa Cruz and San Diego counties.

The Valley also has a far shorter season than the coast, which covers all 12 months of the year with strawberries from somewhere. Loretelli said he likely will sell his crop until early June.

Strawberries hit the produce stands before the region’s much larger production of cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, grapes and other crops.

Sean Lassley of Madera recently stopped at the Saeteurn Family Farm stand in northern Fresno County. “These are my first baskets of the year,” he said. “And the first of what will be many, many more baskets before the season is over.”

Michael Yang, an agricultural assistant with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Fresno County, said that despite the higher temperatures and a shortage of water for some growers, the overall quality of the crop looks good. If anything, the berries may be slightly smaller on some farms.

“You may see that on some farms where the growers have had trouble getting enough water,” Yang said. “The fruit may not size up, but that sweet taste will still be there.”

Loretelli, whose stand is on Claratina Avenue just west of Coffee Road, said the warm weather also has brought an early bloom for his summer fruit trees and grape vines.

The region’s strawberry growers, most of whom farm small plots of land, grow mostly two varieties, Chandler and Albion.

The Chandler is the old standby and is preferred by those who like sweeter-tasting fruit. The challenge for farmers and consumers is that the Chandler has a shorter shelf life than the studier Albion.

Customers such as Lassley say the earlier the season starts, the better.

“The strawberries we grow around here are really something to be proud of,” he said, clutching several baskets of berries. “And I am glad they are a little early.”

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

AT A GLANCE

▪ Strawberries are high in vitamin C and a good source of fiber and potassium.

▪ The fruit should be stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, using a plastic clamshell container or a partially opened plastic bag.

▪ Do not wash the berries until you are ready to eat them.

▪ California grows about 88 percent of the nation’s strawberries. Florida is a distant second.

▪ The fruit brought $2.2 billion in gross income to California growers in 2013, fifth among the state’s farm products. Milk was No. 1, followed by almonds, grapes and cattle.

Sources: California Department of Food and Agriculture, University of California

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