Monday, May 21 , 2018, 6:58 pm | Fair 65º



Dinner Celebrates Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Industry

Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and Naturipe Berry Growers recognized at 27th annual event


With the red fruit as centerpieces, fashion wear and dessert, members of the Santa Maria Valley strawberry community gathered Wednesday night to celebrate those in and supportive of the industry.

The 27th Annual Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner organized by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce attracted approximately 700 people to the Santa Maria Fairpark.

Despite challenges facing agriculture including the statewide drought, the strawberry industry last year saw record production in volume, said Jason Sharrett, grower education program manager for the California Strawberry Commission.

“That’s your accomplishment,” he told the crowd. 

Before dinner, Sal Barajas from Better Produce, a key sponsor, said water and labor availability have been major concerns facing growers, but recent rainfall has eased one of those worries.

Many growers are using the H2A temporary agricultural worker program to provide crews to pick berries, with numbers growing annually. 

“We’re bringing close to 200 people under that program and it’s helped us tremendously,” he said.

Too few workers has meant some growers had to leave fields unpicked during the peak of the season during the summer, he added. 

“People have walked away from 50, 100 acres of product because there’s no labor to harvest,” he said. “That’s been a common thing especially in the peak of the summer.” 

Santa Maria Valley strawberry grower Lorena Chavez, who served as chair of the California Strawberry Commission for two years, sports a strawberry sticker on her lapel Wednesday night for the 27th Annual Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner. Click to view larger
Santa Maria Valley strawberry grower Lorena Chavez, who served as chair of the California Strawberry Commission for two years, sports a strawberry sticker on her lapel Wednesday night for the 27th Annual Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Wednesday night’s celebration included highlighting key aspects of the community, raising money for scholarships and discussing the state of the industry. 

Wendy Ruiz, a Pioneer Valley High School graduate and a past recipient of the Strawberry Commission’s scholarship program, spoke about how the funding helped her earn a degree from Cal Poly. 

Through the years, Sharrett said the commission has awarded millions of dollars to hundreds of students who pursue all sorts of careers, including as doctors and ag industry workers. 

The committee recently met to award about $150,000 in scholarships to 145 recipients, he added.

The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County landed in the spotlight as the Industry Partner of the Year, especially highlighting the 2-year-old Drought Food Assistance Program. 

The temporary program aims to provide food assistance to communities experiencing high levels of unemployment and underemployment due to the drought. 

Through the program, a 25-pound box of healthy food is provided three or four times a month, to feed a four-person household for five days. 

The Foodbank runs the program, which is subsidized by the California Department of Social Services.

The dinner also noted the 100th anniversary of Naturipe, which began in 1917 when Central California strawberry growers formed a marketing cooperative original known as the California Berry Grower Association, now dubbed the Naturipe Berry Growers. 

The recognition dinner occurred weeks before another celebration of strawberries — the annual Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival at the Fairpark from April 28 to 30 with the theme of “A Jammin’ Good Time.” 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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