Bright and early on a November morning in ‘Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch), Netherlands, a contingent of more than 60 Canadian and American berry growers and industry suppliers boarded a tour bus and hit the road on a three-day trip across Northern Europe. The goal? Learn about the innovation underway in soft fruit cultivation and bring it back to Canada to enhance our berry growing industry.
The tour, organized by The North American Strawberry Growers’ Association (NASGA), took place on November 6 – 9, 2018 and focused on strawberries and other small fruit production and marketing activities across Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Twelve stops, three days and three countries. This wasn’t a tour for the faint of heart.
“Farm after farm, we got a first-hand taste of new approaches to soft fruit cultivation that are increasing efficiency and labour, improving density and quality of berries and, of course, driving better bottom lines for growers,” says Connie Bradt-Monsma, managing director of A.M.A. Horticulture Inc, who was on the tour. “Their entire berry industry – from supplier to propagator to grower – is working together to streamline and standardize processes to ultimately produce better fruit for better value.”
So, how can these exciting and innovative approaches benefit Canadian growers? Here are a few trends that we think could be adapted.
Driving excellence through specialization
Don’t be good at many things, be great at one thing. That’s the philosophy taking root in Europe’s berry industry. Specialist propagators and substrate specialists work alongside growers to ensure everyone is producing the highest quality product.
The NASGA tour stopped at berry propagation farms, including Schrijnwerkers, which specializes in blueberry plants. Growers come to these experts with specific needs. In turn, the propagators produce healthier, more resilient plants.
This improves efficiencies for growers, who are able to focus their energy on bringing berries to maturity, harvesting and packing.
The tour bus also stopped at BVB Substrates, the Dutch masters of berry substrate. BVB creates custom substrates that are designed to suit a grower’s particular situation and growing conditions. They also use high quality products, such as perlite and block-cut peat (which can be cut into smaller fractions) that have high porosity and water retention. By collaborating with berry substrate specialists, growers can leave soil decisions in the hands of experts.
Driving efficiency through elevation and faster picking
Raised fields and elevated systems
Guests on the NASGA tour had the opportunity to see a variety of elevated growing systems. At some farms, growers are moving strawberry propagation from the ground to an elevated tray field with a mechanical watering system. Others were bringing berry growing into the greenhouse, using a raised gutter system.
No matter the method, getting berry growing off the ground is reducing labour and costs. Picking berries from the field is backbreaking work and raising the crop to chest level makes a significant difference. This method also helps to reduce diseases and pest pressures, and has been shown to improve yield.
At Frank van Alphen farms in the Netherlands, growers saw significant returns after building a new raised tray field for strawberry propagation. They were able to grow “tight tray”, increasing density from 400,000 plants per hectare to 700,000.
Multi-purpose picking cart
Berry pickers at Bonnacker farms in Nettetal, Germany are using a multi-purpose picking cart to weigh, grade, measure and pack the fruit all at once. A simple innovation, this is helping to reduce labour and costs by eliminating the steps involved in the picking and packing process. Another benefit is that strawberries only touch human hands once. This also helps to reduce bruising and ensures that markets are receiving high-quality berries.
Driving savings through industry standardization
Standardization is one of the major innovations helping to reduce cost and efficiency across the industry. Strawberry containers going to retail markets are streamlined and standardized across Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Growers pack in 500-gram punnets with no tops or lids. This has a number of benefits. Berries breathe better, pickers can pack directly in the field, and growers see significant cost savings. Growers at Cooperatie Hoogstraten explained that the standard punnet containers reduce packing costs by 25 cents. This saves two euros on every crate of strawberries. And the crates are standardized, too. Every greenhouse working with Hoogstraten uses the same crate format and size when shipping their fruit to the market.
“The cross-section of Canadians and Americans on the tour was impressive. There were growers using a traditional method, growers moving into elevated systems, and people like us, looking to support them in trying new approaches,” says Bradt-Monsma. “It was a long three days, but the energy and enthusiasm was high. We are all eager to bring this innovation home to grow our soft-fruit industry in North America.
The European berry tour is part of the NASGA’s mission to spur innovation in strawberry cultivation in North America. On February 3-6, 2019, NASGA will host its 9th annual North American Strawberry Symposium in Orlando, Florida. The Symposium brings together members of the international strawberry community, including growers, researchers, and other industry members to advance the science, production and marketing of the berry industry here in North America.
Elise Johnson is manager, communications and marketing for A.M.A. Horticulture. All photos courtesy of A.M.A. Horticulture.
Photo credit: A.M.A. Horticulture.