Friday, December 1, 2023

New season strawberries slow and price is low 

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Growers worried as wholesale prices show unseasonal early slump.
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After high hopes for a decent profit this season, strawberry growers could be looking at another tough year as low prices hit home earlier than usual.

Waikato grower and Strawberry New Zealand board member Darien McFadden said the season kicked off well in late September with no late frosts and plenty of warm weather encouraging some early ripening.

But prices have since taken an earlier than usual dive at wholesale level.

“We have witnessed some very aggressive pricing-taking place in the market. That is making things a bit of a race to the bottom at present, and it is nowhere near the usual time in the season when prices are at their lowest.”

McFadden is the country’s second largest strawberry grower, with 20ha in plants near Hamilton. He said growers had been hoping for a relatively profitable year after two seasons of covid impact making labour options limited, followed by last year’s wet, difficult season.

He is seeing fruit sold wholesale for $10 a kg, at or below the cost of production for most growers.

“And that would usually happen in early December, so to be there already means it is stacking up to be a shocker.”

He said the market is somewhat at odds with itself. The fruit he sells in his own shop is fetching a healthy $30/kg this year.

“But 99% of the volume is through supermarkets and wholesalers, and the price there is most concerning.”

He said it was hard to understand why prices had dropped so drastically so early.

“Maybe people are simply not buying as much as they usually would, given the cost of living and strawberries really are not a cheap fruit.”
Sandy Laqua, a strawberry grower from Whakamārama, Bay of Plenty, said she has had a slow start to the season, with cooler conditions delaying ripening of fruit, putting her operation almost three weeks behind where she would expect to be.

She has also noticed the slide in prices, with her usual $25/kg sales having to be marked down to $20/kg this year, despite the lower volumes. However, the plants are healthy and given some warmer weather she is confident she will have a plentiful supply for Christmas dessert menus.

Farmers Weekly senior reporter Richard Rennie chats with Western Bay of Plenty strawberry grower, Sandy Laqua, about some of the challenges they have faced this season.

Strawberry Growers NZ manager Sally King said there had been 30% less plant stock available to growers this year due to the impact of last year’s wet weather on plant supply. 

Some estimates are that up to a million fewer plants are available.

“So, while it looks like we may have a good yielding year, you’d be very lucky to buffer against that loss of plant stock.”

Around 9200 tonnes of strawberries are grown in NZ every year, with about 90% sold locally.

McFadden defended the supermarket duopoly that buys the bulk of his quality strawberries and does not believe the reason for poor prices lies at their feet.

“They always pay above the next horse in the race, while also expecting you to deliver on quality.”

Longtime Whakatāne strawberry grower Graham Sims said his year had started well with good-sized fruit, but he experienced some flooding in early October that knocked plants back. Some had been struck with leather rot, which slowed but did not stop their fruit production.

He said he is managing to get $18 a kg for strawberries this year, noting pushback on Facebook from consumers towards growers charging $20-plus/kg this year.

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