While many area residents were grateful for the recent rains in the wake of record-setting drought in California, Manteca-Lathrop strawberry farmers were downcast.
The steady rainfall over the weekend resulted in devastating losses for farmers like Sai Saelee and wife Pham Saechao who saw up to 90 percent of their water-logged juicy red crop wasted.
“You can see how much we threw away,” said a downcast Sai as he cast a worried look at the spaces between the rows of fruit-bearing strawberries littered with the damaged crop.
He said they lost 85 to 90 percent of their crop during the last two days when steady rain fell leaving puddles of water on the plastic covered rows where the fully ripened strawberries lay waiting to be picked.
They fared better on Saturday because it only rained part of the day, said Sai. But Sunday’s crop was practically a total loss. What made things even worse was the fact “this is the peak picking season,” said Sai.
They were not alone in their misery. Other strawberry farmers in the area suffered similar losses, he said. Everyone was “affected, wherever it rained; they all got hurt by the rain,” said Sai who, with his wife, have been farming in the Manteca-Lathrop area for more than a decade.
It was the same story a year ago around the same time, the couple recalled.
“Last year, in May, it rained too. But I think, this year is worse because it rained two days in a row. Last year, it rained one day only,” said Sai.
Even though the damaged strawberries could not be sold, they still had to hand-pick them all and get rid of them.
“You have to pick the bad ones so that they don’t infect the good ones,” explained Sai.
Inclement weather, be it steady rain or intense heat, has not been the only bane to the strawberry farmer’s livelihood. Like many farmers, they have been the victims of theft with people helping themselves to their crop, or farm tools, during the night. Some steal their vegetables only to simply scatter them around the fields. One strawberry farmer suffered the loss of the trailer that they use as a fruit stand on a street corner in Manteca.
Sai and Pham have good reason to smile in the coming days when the weather forecast calls for milder temperatures and more dry spells. The couple is part of the United States’ $2.3 billion strawberry industry with multi-generation family members involved in the farming effort. Both Sai and Pham have relatives not only in the local area but outside of San Joaquin County who are also involved in strawberry and other types of farming. Most of the United States’ supply of strawberries are grown in California.