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Cold temperatures send Ventura County strawberry growers scrambling to protect crop (Photos)

by Brian Watt | Take Two

Contracted workers harvest strawberries on Tuesday at Terry Farms Inc., a family-owned and -operated fruit and vegetable company in Ventura. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Whenever the temperature drops to 34 degrees in Ventura County, Will Terry gets a call on his cell phone.

"Basically, there’s an automated woman speaking," says the fifth generation farmer. "She says 'Frost, frost' and then 'press 2 to confirm.' I go ahead and press 2 and head on out"

Frost is a real threat to Terry’s strawberries, which his family grows on 240 acres in parts of Ventura County.

If it's 34 degrees or below - and there’s no wind, Will Terry knows he’s gotta make some of his own. So he'll head out to the middle of his 24-acre strawberry field, open the hood on a motor that powers a wind machine - a giant propeller on a rotating head 35 feet high, and crank up the engine.

"The point is to get that thing hummin’ and hopefully get the wind moving," says Terry. "The thought is about one of these machines for every 10 acres will give you the wind movement you need to get the temperature to bounce about 3 or 4 degrees."

On this morning, Terry cranks the engine. It sputters for a second, then the sputter settles into a familiar hum. You'll hear that hum on this farm and dozens more all over Ventura County.

It's January in the strawberry-growing business.

Protecting the cash crop

Will Terry holds a business degree from Loyola Marymount that he's brought back to his family's business, Terry Farms. On top of leasing this land, his family rents each of the three wind machines on it for $3,000 a month during the cold months.

Will’s father Edgar says it’s worth it.

"You can’t sell damaged fruit," says Edgar Terry. "Obviously consumers don’t want to buy fruit that’s burnt. And that’s what frost does. It’s actually almost like a firestorm. It burns the fruit. So like anything else, you’ve gotta come out here and protect your investment. And you’re gonna do everything within your means to do so."

The investment on strawberries, he says, is about $23,000 per acre in Southern California - and that’s before you even start to pick’ em. More than 80 percent of the strawberries grown in the U.S. come from California.

Edgar Terry says while his family has been farming for more than a century, it’s only been growing strawberries for the last decade.

"I thought I would never ever grow strawberries," he says. "I grew up a vegetable farmer. Strawberries to me were the closest thing to communism that you could get to, but after we started growin’ em, they’re exciting, an exciting crop to grow."

Exciting because demand for them continues to grow, as health-conscious consumers discover that despite their sweetness, they’re low in sugar, and high in antioxidants.

But strawberries are a delicate crop with a longer growing cycle that Will Terry says farmers struggle to stay on top of. 

"The problem that’s unique with strawberries is, unlike a lemon or an avocado, it makes a big difference whether or not you’re picking on time. The fruit will NOT hold," he says.

Finding farworkers

This time of year, Ventura County growers are harvesting their “winter” strawberries, with pickers going through each acre once, maybe twice a week. But in a couple of months, there will be a lot more strawberries, and the need for a lot more people to pick them three or four times a week.

Lorenzo Pastrana supervises one of Terry Farms’ top picking crews. He expects a worker shortage this year, just like last year.

"The problem is it’s getting harder for people to cross the Mexican border," he says in his native Spanish..

Edgar Terry is frustrated by current immigration policy and says the Terry farm will be competing for workers with just about every grower in the state.

"Strawberries aren’t conducive to mechanical harvesting. And there’s a very real concern when we hit our peak in the end of March/first of April that there’s not going to be enough workers here to harvest what’s available here to harvest," he says.

Easter also comes at that time: March 31st - eight days earlier this year than last. Edgar Terry says the demand for strawberries usually jumps in the two weeks BEFORE Easter.

"After Easter, you’re gonna have a natural slough-off of people going to the store because they’re burned out of going to store to buy food, sort of like after a Christmas holiday," he says. "And that’s when the peak will hit. So you still gotta keep harvesting your crop to keep it healthy."

This year is already tricky in the strawberry fields, so the Terrys are hoping for very few frosty nights.

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