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Drought, rain & hail cause strawberry grower woes
nottom strawberry pick
Chang Saephan carefully picks fresh strawberries Sunday at the field being farmed by Sai Saelee and his wife Fahm Saechao. Saephan is a member of the family. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO /The Bulletin

Sai Saelee and his wife Fahm Saechao are worried about their strawberry crop this year. And they are not alone.

Strawberry growers, many of them small family operations like Saelee and Saechao’s three-acre plot on West Yosemite Avenue near McKinley Avenue, are being hit by a double whammy. There’s the ongoing drought, for one thing, which prompted Governor Jerry to declare that California is under a state of emergency and is affecting just about everybody across the economic spectrum. Then there was the unseasonal downpour coupled by hail in some places on April 7 which caught the strawberry farmers off guard. That double whammy courtesy of Mother Nature “messed up” their crops, Saechao said. Fortunately for them that day, they started picking the strawberries – plus some vegetables – early in the morning several hours ahead of the rain and hail that came down shortly before the noon hour, so they were able to sell some of their crop and keep their fruitstand open until the end of the day.

Not so for Saechao’s cousins who farm a larger acreage in Oakdale.

“My cousin lost a lot because of the rain and hail,” especially since some of their crop is sent to the cannery, said Saechao who knows of many other small family strawberry farmers that are being hit hard this year.

They are also baffled and really worried about a phenomenon that is happening. They are wondering, “Where are the flowers that are supposed to replace the crop that are now being picked?”

As she hand-picked the red and juicy fruit this weekend, she gestured at the ground-hugging crop that was showing only sporadic clusters of the delicate white blossoms. She has never seen this happen before, she said, and is worried about having enough fruit to harvest around Mother’s Day, one of their busiest times at the fruitstand.

Compounding the drought is the hot weather which “burns” the delicate fruit if they are not picked quickly, Saechao said.

“There’s a lot of burning; we can’t pick them fast enough. We can only do the best we can. The weather is cold in the morning, and then (temperature) jumps to 85 (degrees) later in the day – too dry,” she explained.

“This year, the (strawberry) farmers are not making any money. Everybody is losing money,” she said.

Because of the drought, strawberry season started three weeks early this year, Saechao noted.

“We usually start (on) April 15; this year, we started in March (because) the weather was warm and dry,” she said, referring to the start of strawberry-picking and sale season.

While strawberry is their main crop in the small acreage that they till with daily care as though it was their back-yard garden, Saechao and Saelee also grow to a much smaller extent blueberries (they are engaged in a constant battle with ground squirrels which help themselves to the young plants in the dark of night), onions, garlic, peas, and other vegetables to supplement their seasonal income.

According to the California Strawberry Commission, the Golden State is the leader in the national production of strawberry with more than 2.3 billion pounds of the fruit harvested last year alone. That harvest haul amounts to 88 percent of the country’s total fresh and frozen strawberries, according to the commission’s report. California’s strawberry crop is approximately valued at $2.6 billion, and is the state’s sixth most valuable fruit crop produced, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Strawberries are planted on nearly 40,000 acres in California. Most of the growers are “passionate farmers on multi-generation family farms,” the commission’s report added.

Among those families are Saechao and Saelee and their cousins in Oakdale. Saechao and Saelee took over the strawberry farming from relatives who started their operation in the larger acreage on the southwest corner of West Yosemite and McKinley avenues. With the property being readied for development by the City of Lathrop – the project is called the South Lathrop Specific Plan in an area that was once an unincorporated part of San Joaquin County which the city annexed – Saelee and Saechao moved their fruitstand and farming operation a little further west of McKinley on Yosemite Avenue.