Elissa Mincitar, the 2014 Strawberry Queen, holds a table centerpiece from the Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner held Wednesday night at the Santa Maria Fairpark. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Maria Valley strawberry industry is battling increasing production costs and stagnant prices in addition to the drought and labor shortage, growers said Wednesday night.

The lack of rain is creating a big burden for growers in the industry, which had a value of $460 million in 2013 for the region.

“Please pray for rain,” Danilu Ramirez of RDO Equipment and RDO Water said, quoting the plea of grower Juan Cisneros from Better Produce. “Everybody pray for rain.”

The plea prompted applause from attendees at the 25th Strawberry Industry Recognition Dinner on Wednesday night at the Santa Maria Fairpark. Approximately 600 people involved in all aspects of the industry attended.

Ramirez and George Chavez, from L&G Farms, shared local growers’ reflections, including those of Pat Sheehy, whose family was among the berry pioneers in the Santa Maria Valley.

Today’s growers are dealing with rising costs while prices aren’t keeping up with expenses. Production has increased but not enough to cover growers’ costs.

“The drought is something that affects every single farmer. It’s affecting our entire future in the state of California,” Ramirez said in sharing Sheehy’s reflections on the past 25 years.

Despite the challenges facing the industry, Sheehy still loves the strawberry and broader ag industry, Ramirez said.

Cisneros began as a sharecropper and his involvement expanded to include all aspects of the industry, Ramirez said.

“Juan is thankful to be able to live the American dream,” Ramirez said. 


George Chavez and Danilu Ramirez share local strawberry growers’ reflections during Wednesday’s event in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Cisneros noted the vast improvement in the strawberry varieties during the past 25 years, leading to improved flavor and quality welcomed by consumers. 

But labor can prove a challenge for growers due to a shortage, although Cisneros had praise for the H-2A temporary worker program.

The Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor and Convention Bureau organized the dinner with the support of major sponsor California Giant.

Reigning Strawberry Queen Elissa Mincitar also attended as one of her final acts before being replaced later this month during the Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival at the fairpark. 

Rick Tomlinson, president of the California Strawberry Commission, introduced the state’s newest grower — Cal Poly with two acres for what is called the Strawberry Sustainability Research & Education Center.

Rather than focus on a few key members, organizers of the dinner saluted the innovation, hard work and community spirit of the entire strawberry industry and its workers, according to Tim Ritchie, chairman of the board for the Chamber of Commerce.

A video shown Wednesday noted the vital role for strawberries, Santa Barbara County’s top crop, in the Santa Maria Valley and beyond. 

The industry accounts for approximately 25,000 direct and indirect jobs.

“Those numbers are outrageous, outrageous in a good way,” said Ed Carcarey, vice chairman for the Chamber of Commerce and master of ceremonies.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.