Organic strawberries are often profitable, but risky

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Organic strawberries are a small but fast-growing sector of U.S. agriculture, with numbers of growers and acres steadily increasing year over year.

But while financial returns can be impressive, growing organic strawberries is not for the faint of heart. Initial investment is high, management is complex, and even a flawless crop can fall victim to worker shortages, especially at harvest.

A report just released by the University of California Cooperative Extension, Sample Costs to Produce Organic Strawberries, 2014, breaks down the financial risks and rewards of growing organic berries on California’s Central Coast, the predominant strawberry-growing region in the U.S.

But amid the rows of figures, the report also gives an insider’s look at the elaborate measures required to bring organic berries to market, from hand-culling and weeding to sucking up insects with a tractor-sized vacuum cleaner.

Getting ready

Land preparation alone requires more than 20 separate steps before planting; including soil testing, two passes to incorporate a cover crop, applications of compost and organic fertilizer, pre-irrigation, 12 rounds of tillage, two rounds of shaping to form beds, installation of drip irrigation and coverage of planting beds with black plastic mulch.

Planting berries, and nurturing the delicate fruits until harvest requires additional months of vigilance, expertise and hand-labor.

“People who don’t work in agriculture may not appreciate the level of complexity, experience and management required,” said UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Laura Tourte, report co-author and a former OFRF research partner. “Among all the skills required, financial management is absolutely critical to successful farming.”

By the numbers

The numbers in the report are arresting. Total costs to grow organic strawberries in California’s Central Coast region are pegged at $49,044 per acre, approximately $1.47 million for a 30-acre farm.

Representative net returns above operating costs come in at $14,706 per acre, or about $441,000 for a 30-acre spread. But the report’s risk analysis section reveals a number of factors that can alter those bottom-of-the column results.

Pest and weed pressures are high on the list of challenges, along with labor supply uncertainty, which disproportionately affects organic. Organic growers must also meet higher regulatory burdens than conventional growers.

“I would say to keep in mind that these are estimated costs and potential returns,” Tourte said. “This is not a prescriptive ‘this is how you farm’ kind of report. We are trying to model a system on real-world practices, and show representative costs and net returns for a range of yields and prices. While at some yields and prices a profit can be made, it is important to note that at the lower yields and prices growers may actually lose money too.”

Studies produced

UC Cooperative Extension has produced hundreds of Sample Cost of Production studies over the decades, on scores of different crops, and began reporting on organic production in 1992.

The reports are intended to serve as practical tools for farmers, and do not offer side-by-side comparisons between organic and conventional production systems. Yet reports spanning a series of years offer intriguing glimpses of the factors farmers must consider when choosing a production method, or transitioning to organic.

Yields for organic strawberries, in the 2014 report, are estimated at 4,250 eight-pound trays per acre — a significant rise from the 3,750 trays-per-acre shown in a 2006 report.

The 2014 study pins the representative unit price paid to growers for organic strawberries at $15 per tray, up from the $11 per tray estimated in 2006.

New, high-yielding varieties, and increasing consumer demand for strawberries factor into both the yield and price figures. A 2010 “Sample Costs” study of conventional strawberries estimates yields of 6,000 trays per acre, with a representative unit price to growers of $9.50 per tray.

While the yield and price numbers appear to favor organic, the reports contain data from different years, and are not directly comparable. Individual farmers must also factor in other costs, the availability of marketing opportunities, and personal willingness to work with toxic chemicals.

Yet strawberry farmers are increasingly making the transition to organic. According to data published by the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center, organic strawberry acreage in the state grew 62 percent between 2009 and 2012 — the most recent figures available.

Farm-level sales of organic strawberries rose 59 percent over the same period, from $55 million to $94 million, the report said.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. As a former organic farmer and USDA organic inspector, I can attest that there is really no such thing as organic strawberries. And your story confirms this. It’s just too risky, and anyone claiming to grow organic strawberries is more than likely cheating somewhere in the process.

    It’s human nature, after all. This is what happens when there’s no field testing in the multibillion dollar organic industry.

  2. Mr. Popoff has frequently “challenged” us to debate him in public. We will not do that and we will not do that here.

    However, the link he provides is filled with blatantly false information as is much of the printed material he has produced and distributed (as well as his self-published book).

    The Cornucopia Institute is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt public charity with a focus on research and education. Over 50% of our funding comes from individual donors (a rarity in policy research groups). The majority of the balance comes from nonprofit foundations and the rest from organic industry members (dominated by the nation’s consumer-owned food cooperatives).

    Despite his continual insistence we received no funding from Organic Valley (in fact, if you use the search function on our website you will note that we aggressively watchdog the almost billion-dollar a year farmer-owned cooperative and since we found them purchasing milk, unbeknownst to their farmer-owners and customers, from a 7000-cow factory farm they have been anything but friendly to our work).

    Also, we have never received a dime from Mr. George Soros, his foundation, or, to our knowledge, anyone affiliated with him. Undoubtedly, we receive support from liberal and conservative interests that all believe organic and ecologically-produced food pays dividends to individual families and society.

    I will not take the time to clarify the numerous other factual inaccuracies included in Mr. Popoffs presentation and is self-published book. But this one example should help readers judge Mr. Popoff’s credibility and the veracity of his statements. There is more information concerning our organization and its structure, and mission,at http://www.cornucopia.org

    Mark A. Kastel
    The Cornucopia Institute

  3. It’s a shame you’re so fearful of me to enter into debate. And how ironic that each and every time you say you’re unwilling to debate, you proceed to do just that, to debate me.

    Meanwhile, you DO receive funding from Mr. George Soros. His money comes to you via the nonprofit foundations which you admit are the source of the majority of your funding.

    But then, you’re not debating, right?

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