The Albion strawberry is eating very well right now. Firm and deeply red, this first-pick variety is a favourite of Jeff Tigchelaar for a host of reasons. Not only does this gem produce good yields, he loves the aroma and the sweet tickle snacking right out of his fields at Jordan, Ontario.
The Tigchelaar family -- brothers Jeff and Dan, sons and their temporary seasonal workers -- is harvesting about 40 acres of day-neutral strawberries at any given time in the May to October window. They are considered one of the 50 or so Ontario growers who could conceivably expand operations according to the Greenbelt Foundation.
Dozens of other berry growers manage pick-your-own operations and sell at farmers’ markets. But there’s a core that could ramp up to take more market share at major grocers. How realistic is the notion of competing at a profitable price point against continental giants such as Driscoll’s, Naturipe and Dole which supply berries 365 days a year?
The Greenbelt Foundation, advocates for the health of protected agricultural lands in southern Ontario, says there is an opportunity. It has just published an in-depth analysis titled Plant the seeds: Opportunities to grow southern Ontario’s Fruit and Vegetable Sector. (https://www.greenbelt.ca/planting_seeds).
The data was collected pre-COVID, identifying vertical farming as well as garlic, eggplant, sweet potatoes, pears, fresh grapes and field strawberries as the best bets for expansion. Jeff Tigchelaar was one of the berry growers who participated in the study.
“I think this has to be a conversation as an Ontario berry industry,” says Tigchelaar. “We have multiple production systems which have to be planned within the strawberry basket. Whether that’s protected berries or standard field-grown berries, the system has to be feasible and profitable and sustainable.”
The opportunities for field expansion are rare if the desire is to be close to the risk-mitigating, moderating effects of Lake Ontario or Lake Erie. That land is extremely expensive. Remember that berry growers require double the acres of bearing crop to plant next year’s harvest.
This season, the other risk factor is access to labour. The Tigchelaar’s are operating with 60 per cent of their normal seasonal workforce. As a result, they have pared back production in the months of July to October by 20 to 30 per cent. Until growing systems become more protected, there is limited appetite for expansion.
Strawberry Tyme is one of a handful of berry growers experimenting with tunnel-protected, tabletop production near Simcoe, Ontario. The fourth-generation farm is owned and operated by Gary, son John and his wife Diane, and sons Dalton and Mason Cooper. In 2018, the Cooper family decided to move towards this Dutch-tested and innovative growing method.
“One of the main advantages is upright picking for employees which in turn means more efficient use of labour and fewer back issues,” explains Diane Cooper. “The fruit condition is excellent as the berries hang in the air rather than lying on a bed of plastic where they can be bruised by rain and wind.”
Cooper has observed that berries grown under high tunnels dry more quickly in the mornings than field berries. That’s a bonus for controlling diseases. In addition, water and fertilizer can be recycled in this system.
“The infrastructure is expensive and it has been quite a learning curve but over time we hope it will be a viable, economic way to produce fresh strawberries,” she concludes.
Kathy Macpherson, vice-president, research and policy, Greenbelt Foundation still points to the data compiled by John Groenewegen, JRG Consulting Group. She explains there are several factors that could help enable strawberry expansion. Growers and marketers need a critical mass of day-neutral strawberries available to service major retail accounts from July to October. Retailer support for Ontario strawberries needs to extend beyond the June-bearing field strawberries. Foodland Ontario is in a position to push more berries in a broader window. More research on cultivar selection and plant breeding could focus on Ontario conditions. Access to crop protection materials, currently not allowed in Canada, would be helpful in fighting pests and disease.
Picking up on Tigchelaar’s theme of needing an Ontario conversation, Macpherson underscores the opportunity between field and greenhouse strawberry growers to collaboratively offer a critical mass of strawberries 52 weeks of the year to major retail accounts.
One of the two major growers of Ontario greenhouse strawberries is DelFrescoPure based in Kingsville, Ontario. Carl Mastronardi, president, explains that despite his many experienced years of growing greenhouse tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, strawberries are a big risk. He and the DelFrescoPure team have been on an Everest-climbing learning curve in the last three years to finetune a profitable system.
“You need a really good start for each plant,” notes Mastronardi. “You need just as much labour because there is no automated picking. And to expand, we need access to more electricity.”
While DelFrescoPure is delighted with the 2020 yields of its November 2019 to July 2020 season, management says it will take two years of planning and securing building permits to double their current 17 acres. He notes that costs to retrofit for strawberry greenhouse production are about $500,000 to $600,000 per acre.
Berries are highly perishable and highly risky. For Ontario, is it the right place and time to grow?