Central Valley strawberry stands are expected to open soon, and if the next few weeks remain dry, as expected, it looks to be an excellent production year, report UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors in Fresno, Merced and Sacramento counties. One stand in Fresno opened on April 9, and others will begin selling this weekend.
Valley strawberry production is small compared to Southern California and Coastal production areas. Nearly all the farms are just a few acres in size and the bulk of their produce is sold at roadside stands. UC farm advisors work closely with these producers to help them grow safe and wholesome fruit.
The farmers are mainly Mien and Hmong refugees from Laos, a Southeast Asian country that neighbors Vietnam. When the U.S. left Southeast Asia in 1975, thousands of Hmong and Mien fled their homeland to avoid persecution. Over 120,000 were eventually resettled in the U.S. The population today has expanded to an estimated 300,000.
Many of the first-generation immigrants were farmers in Laos and turned to farming in the U.S. These growers lease small plots and grow several varieties of strawberries, such as Chandler, Camarosa, Albion and Seascape. Few have formal agricultural education.
In addition to offering production assistance, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors Richard Molinar in Fresno, Maxwell Norton in Merced and Chuck Ingels in Sacramento offer food safety training to reduce the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak associated with strawberries. Working with the California Strawberry Commission, Molinar and Norton have for the last five years held intensive food safety workshops that included hands-on training about proper handling of the fruit and personal hygiene. The farmers were given training materials in Hmong and English that they could use to teach the workers they hired about reducing any chances of the fruit becoming contaminated. Twenty-six growers in the Fresno region and 27 in the Merced region participated in workshops. Many are currently learning about third-party food safety audits with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
In Sacramento County, Ingels and a team of researchers provided on-farm training in pest management and food safety. Ingels’ team worked directly with 11 strawberry growers in 2009 and 2010.
“On the first visit to their farms, we found out their current practices and then provided training,” Ingels said. “We came back a second time to do further training and evaluate their progress. We visited the farms a third time to determine whether changes to their practices were being sustained. There was definitely a shift (for the better).”
With an increasing focus on food safety, many produce buyers, suppliers, and consumers want to know that good agricultural practices are being used on the farm. The programs in the various counties help to document and verify that farms are producing fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible and that the farmer is aware of potential problems and steps to correct them.