CALIFORNIA CROPS HIT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California-grown strawberries, broccoli and celery could be in short supply this year, as a result of heavy, unexpected rainfall in prime growing areas in the southern part of the state. To make up for shortfalls, produce wholesalers are likely to rely more heavily on imports, an official with the California Farm Bureau said.A series of storms, starting in late December and continuing

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California-grown strawberries, broccoli and celery could be in short supply this year, as a result of heavy, unexpected rainfall in prime growing areas in the southern part of the state. To make up for shortfalls, produce wholesalers are likely to rely more heavily on imports, an official with the California Farm Bureau said.

A series of storms, starting in late December and continuing into the first week of January, have dumped several inches of rain on the area, causing harvest delays and loss of fruit for growers. The storms caused at least $24 million in damage to agricultural products grown in Ventura County alone, and that figure is likely to go up, a spokesman for the farm bureau here said.

No estimates were available for Santa Barbara County, another prime growing area that was hard hit by the severe weather, he said.

Damage estimates last week were sketchy since many growers were hampered by mud-covered roads, and not able to get into the fields to assess the true extent of the damage.

"There will be a supply gap of California-grown strawberries," said Ron Miller, spokesman for the farm bureau. "It rained too much in the growing region. All the areas where strawberries are produced are experiencing rain."

Miller was familiar with one San Francisco-based wholesaler who was working with overseas growers to import strawberries to make up for shortages of homegrown berries. Other produce companies are likely to do the same, he said, adding it was too soon to predict the impact the weather-related losses will have on retail prices.