Sweet Deals as Strawberries Glut Market

A midtown Manhattan fruit vendor is selling two pints of strawberries for $5. They usually go for $4 or $5 a pint. Photo by: Sophia Rosenbaum

Good news for berry lovers is not so good news for berry farmers.

A strawberry surplus generated by erratic weather in California and Florida has dropped prices, so pint containers that usually go for up to $5 can be found for as little as $1 at some street-corner fruit stands in the city.

“They’re not real sweet,” said Alan Weinerman, who recently took advantage of a two-pints-for-two-dollars deal at a stand in Astoria, Queens. “But they’re better than you would expect for this time of year.”

The bumper crop is a product of a late start for Florida’s strawberry harvest and an early start to the California season. Both peaked at the end of March, around the time Florida’s season usually ends and California’s begins.

“Because strawberries are perishable, it’s very much supply and demand,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission. “When the supply is great, the price goes small.”

Raymond Sepulveda, assistant produce manager at a Key Food supermarket in Astoria, said he bought 12 pounds of strawberries – or a flat – for an “awesome price” this week: $12.95.

A flat usually wholesales for about $15, and can run as high as $30 when Florida and California are not in their peak seasons, said Tom Linaris, the supervisor in the berry department at S. Katzman Produce in the Hunts Point produce terminal in the Bronx.

Strawberries are on sale at the Key Food where Mr. Sepulveda works, with three one-pint containers for going for $5. “We’ve got four months, even five, of low price-point berries,” he predicted.

Some fruit vendors in Midtown are selling two pints of strawberries for $5 – not quite an Astoria-like bargain, but about half the usual price charged at Manhattan stands. Ali Somser, who sells fruit on 39th Street and Avenue of the Americas, said he expected pints to fall to $1.50 in the weeks to come.

At Elly’s Market in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where strawberries usually sell for $2.99 a pint, “We’ve done two for $3,” said a store worker, Tae Lee.

California growers, which produce about 88 percent of the nation’s supply, normally ship between three million and four million flats in early April, Ms. O’Donnell said. This year, 6.6 million went out the first week of the month.

“We are a few weeks ahead of what would normally be our peak season,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

She explained that a January cold spell suppressed berry production, and then when a heat wave followed, “they all ripened at the same time.”

Florida’s strawberry season, which runs from December to April, got off to a similarly late start this year because of a cold spurt, then surged when temperatures spiked.

“When it did come on, it came on like gangbusters,” Mr. Linaris said. “We saw an unusually high amount of strawberries coming out of Florida in February.”

Mr. Linaris said he expected the California crop to continue to produce plentiful amounts of good-quality berries until November, even if the days of $1 pints may be numbered.

The strawberry farmers will be happy when prices rebound. Right now, said Ms. O’Donnell, many in California are not even breaking even.

“At the moment, it’s not ideal for farmers,” she said. “But at this time of year, it’s not unexpected to have a significant amount of fruit on the market and lower prices.”

[Published on The New York Times’ City Room blog on April 26, 2013]