Strawberries may be a delightful addition to just about any meal, but they’re a staple in California’s economy and a key element of Santa Barbara County’s vital agriculture industry.
A report released Tuesday by the California Strawberry Commission based in Watsonville, explains just how large a role this fruit plays in the local and statewide economy.
California’s 400 family-owned strawberry farms grow 90 percent of the United States’ strawberries, with the industry directly and indirectly contributing $3.4 billion to the state’s economy. In Northern California alone, nearly 2 billion strawberry plants grow in open fields from October to February, according to the report, called Sustaining California Communities: Economic Contributions of Strawberry Farming.
Strawberries are the state’s number one crop in value per acre, with California farmers growing the bulk of the nation’s strawberries on less than one percent of the state’s total farmland. Strawberries are also the fourth highest value crop and the sixth overall agriculture commodity in the state.
In Santa Barbara County, strawberries comprised $367 million of county’s fruit and nut crop in 2011, which was worth a total of $520 million. In 2012, strawberries headlined the county’s agriculture sector, which was worth nearly $1.3 billion in total production value.
The strawberry industry also provides 70,000 jobs around the state, mainly in the North and along the coast, including Santa Barbara County.
These positions encompass 30 categories, according to the commission, employing locals on farms, in the classroom, in research labs, in distribution centers and on the road.
“I think a lot of our children really understand the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Liz Powell, Food Services Coordinator at the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. “Many of the parents probably pick the strawberries for the different farmers in the area, and then the students get to eat them.”
California’s strawberry farmers invest 97 cents of every farm dollar back into the community, whether it be for worker pay, equipment or taxes.
Approximately 35 percent of the crop value goes toward labor costs. Strawberry farming creates $108 million annually in statewide tax revenue. In some areas, strawberry farmers pay more in payroll taxes than the salaries of all the area’s elementary school teachers, according to the commission’s report.
Strawberry growers also contribute their time, financial resources and in-kind donations to food banks and other charitable organizations. Local growers have been known to donate strawberries to the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County during their peak growing season, said Paul Ramirez, foodbank warehouse manager.
Santa Barbara County’s agriculture sector annually contributes $2.8 billion to the county’s economy, employing more than 21,000 workers, according to the report.