From Cali to Cone: An American Strawberry Tale

Strawberries. Small, red, and a little spotty. They taste great and they’re a healthy treat, but they’re not really of any consequence. Or are they?

A lot of us buy and eat food without ever thinking about the technology and people that have gone into putting it in our kitchen cupboards. If you’re a fan of Dreyer’s strawberry ice cream like I am, you may enjoy the flavor without realizing the work that’s gone into producing the ingredients.

Of course it hasn’t occurred to you — you’re distracted by holding a tub of ice cream! Your understandable concern is whether to drop a few scoops into a bowl or get fancy and opt for a cone.

So how does that perfect strawberry get into your dish?


Red Berries from the Golden State

If you’re enjoying an American strawberry, there’s a good chance it has come from the state of California. While strawberry farming is also popular in Florida and Oregon, it is the Golden State which grows the bulk of the produce.

Production in California is continuous — there is no single season that owns strawberry production. Different varieties of strawberries are grown at different times of year, with both winter- and summer-planted strawberries serving American tables.

“California never has a period of time where there aren’t strawberries being picked,” says Dan Winiecke of TreeTop, Nestlé’s strawberry supplier for products such as Dreyer’s ice cream.

Growing any produce in the Californian climate isn’t easy, especially with the unpredictable dry-heat of the Santa Ana winds and scarce rainfall. As local authorities move to protect state water resources, farming communities have found creative ways to lower their water usage to comply with the new rules.


Strawberries Saving Water

The Oxnard district, a coastal area between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, provides around 150–200 million pounds of processing strawberries each year and has tight water restrictions due to local drought effects.

Traditional systems for watering strawberry fields used too much water to be viable, and farmers had little time to adapt: “In 2015 farmers had to reduce their water usage by more than 20% in one year,” says Winiecke. “It takes 3.2 acre feet of water to grow a strawberry crop. They currently have the restriction of using 2.4 acre feet.”

The heaviest water usage goes towards getting the plants started. Traditional methods distribute water in broad strokes, which wets land that doesn’t need irrigation. New technology has improved the process. Micro-sprinklers use jets of water on smaller areas where plants really need it. They’ve saved around 50% of the water farmers would usually use in the establishment phase of strawberry growth.

Winiecke notes that rather than damaging the growth of the young plants, the low water usage of micro-sprinklers has improved crops: “It’s actually better for the plants; they’ve gotten better coverage. They’ve cut the water-use in half, and they’ve gotten just as good or better establishment.”

Winiecke also indicated an unexpected benefit of the micro-sprinklers, which have helped predators fight off damaging spider-mites in the strawberry fields: “It’s sustainable insect control. Having the micro-sprinklers has allowed them to keep the canopy moist. Predator mites like it wet, while the spider-mites like it hot and dry — it’s helped farmers contain the mite outbreaks they’ve had out here in the last few years.”

The technology is catching on quick, and Winiecke thinks that “you’ll see a lot of farmers switch to the micro-sprinklers really soon.”


How a strawberry becomes Dreyer’s ice cream

Once established, Oxnard strawberries have two potential paths: the first berries, which tend to be larger in size, are sold on the fresh market. This fruit is picked every three days while slightly green, so that they are the perfect ripeness once sold.

Later in the yield, the strawberries begin to shrink in size. These strawberries are picked less frequently — around every six days — to allow the fruit to develop a sweeter taste profile before being frozen and used for products like ice cream.

Before being transported to our facility in Bakersfield, California, the strawberries go through testing for appearance, color, taste, and safety elements. That includes making sure that no mold, yeast or harmful bacteria is present. Only the best strawberries will be chosen for use in Dreyer’s ice cream.

Once safely transported, the strawberries must be carefully thawed. Michael Sharp, a research scientist at the Product Technology Center in Bakersfield explained the process: “The frozen strawberries arrive with a certificate of analysis to confirm they have passed quality and safety checks. It takes about a week for us to temper the strawberries under refrigeration. Once they are ready, the strawberries are placed into a fruit feeder which disperses them into a flowing stream of frozen ice cream.”


Ice cream: simplified

Dreyer’s ice cream has been going through changes in recent months, with a switch to a simpler list of ingredients. In addition to removing artificial colors and flavors and reducing sugars, the brand has committed to increasing the amount of real fruit and fruit juice in their products.

Strawberries are just one part of that story, but across many of our ingredients, the farming community continues to innovate to ensure crops are kind to the environment and of the best quality and safety.

So next time you enjoy a spoonful of strawberry ice cream, you’ll think about the micro-sprinklers, careful selection, and delicate freezing that brought the perfect strawberry to your cone. Sustainable, and delicious.