Strawberries, Supply Chains & Crystal Balls

In the past few weeks, products that everyone needs and takes for granted have become scarce.  Thanks to the Covid 19 pandemic, Americans are learning more about “Supply Chain” issues than they might ever cared to have known.
Recently, stories have emerged about how much food is being wasted as a result of the almost-overnight closure of restaurants, hotels and other food service establishments.  Milk is being dumped and vegetables plowed under, even while shoppers are experiencing empty shelves and shortages of certain foods in the grocery store.  Meanwhile, unemployment is skyrocketing and lines at food banks are enormous.
Farms large and small that grow crops for restaurants and food service cannot turn on a dime to redirect their production to grocery stores or even farmers markets.  They might grow specialty items that grocery shoppers rarely buy.  Or they may have a long-standing contract with a single hotel chain or cruise ship company that has now shut down.  Mostly though, the problem is that harvest and handling is the single largest expense for many crops, and growers cannot afford to do it if they aren’t sure there is a buyer.  Terra Firma’s strawberries may offer an example.
For over twenty years, we have grown a relatively small amount of Strawberries.  Winters is not considered a strawberry-growing region due to its short season, and there are no other significant growers in this area.  But it is possible most years to produce an abundant and tasty spring fruit crop for our CSA subscribers.  We have very few other outlets for the berries.
As recently as 2010, Terra Firma was growing 5 acres of berries and harvesting an average of 75 flats a day.  Beginning in 2011, our CSA subscriptions began to drop, requiring fewer berries.
Strawberries are planted once each year, in August.  Meawhile, next year’s plants must be ordered in May, while the season is still in full swing.  That limits our ability to make adjustments to next year’s berry patch based on this year’s season.
For several years now, we have reduced our strawberry acreage every year as our CSA subscriptions have dropped.  But since we could not accurately predict those numbers out eleven months in advance, we still found ourselves most years with more berries than we could sell.
Our berry patch this year is the smallest we have had in over a decade, but it undoubtedly would have been “too big” once again had the Covid pandemic not caused our CSA numbers to jump dramatically in late March.  Instead, we are close to having just the right amount.
With many of the other crops we harvest this time of year, we are making changes in real-time to increase the amount we will have available in the short-term.  But we can’t change the amount of strawberries.  So we have stopped adding new subscribers to the CSA, at least for now.
Meanwhile, in just a few short weeks, we will be faced with a decision about how many plants to order for next year’s berry patch.  There are so many unknowns right now that making any decision or prediction a year out seems absurd.  Even with all the technological advances in our society, crystal balls are still notoriously unreliable.
Thanks,
Pablito

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