Riding the berry revolution

Photo by Drew Walmsley

Draped by strawberry runners, Dusty Zamecnik sees a future unfolding that could not have been forecast five years ago. He’s tripled the size of a strawberry plant propagation greenhouse that was originally built in 2019 near Langton, Ontario. 


The pandemic notwithstanding, the new facilities are erected with a critical change:  equipment that lessens dependence on labour. The 6.5 acres are equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Rainwater is collected from the rooftop.  Leachate is disinfected and returned to the water circulation system.  Robotic booms for spraying have been installed. It’s the third phase of a minimum-touch and zero-waste nursery. 


“Technology is allowing us to expand and redefine our needs for labour,” says Dusty Zamecnik, general manager, EZ Grow Farms, Langton, Ontario “We expect a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in workers per acre, but also with the prerequisite of two to three metre distancing.”


While expansion may seem counter-intuitive during crisis times, EZ Grow Farms is ramping up to fulfill not only its traditional Florida field business, but demand for Ontario greenhouse-grown strawberries. Renovated or new purpose-built greenhouses for strawberries now total about 120 acres in southwestern Ontario, double the acreage of just two years ago. Cielo Vista, for example, is one of the newest entrants with 16 acres in Leamington as is Parks Blueberries with one acre in Bothwell.


The greenhouse sector has not only told its story to consumers of locally grown, but surpassed expectations for flavour. That’s been several years in the making because there’s a complex recipe for the ever-bearing strawberry variety, light and nutrition that will yield flavour akin to field-grown.


Global networks


Some of the genetics, for example, are globally sourced. This quest for flavour took Zamecnik to Italy pre-pandemic. “I was on a high-speed train between Rome and Naples when the coronavirus virus arrived,” he recalls of January 2020.  He made his connections with breeders just before borders closed. Since then, the pandemic has nixed international travel and nipped those budding relationships for understanding the nuances of new berry growing systems. Once borders open, it’s expected there will be pent-up demand for knowledge transfer at research stations, field tours and trade shows, globally.   


This theme of global networks sounds familiar to Christine and Dave Klyn-Hesselink, long-cane raspberry growers near Fenwick, Ontario. They were in the Netherlands in 2018, sponging up the knowledge to grow long-cane raspberries. Growers in the raspberry sector, like strawberries, are ground-truthing soilless substrates as the way to grow stronger, more fibrous roots and avoid soil-borne diseases. This revolution in growing raspberries requires two 1.6 metres tall canes per 1.7 litre pot with a bamboo support. One of the advantages is that this cane is in full production within months. 


The transformative travel experience spurred a new nursery, Ready-Set-Grow in 2020. As one of Ontario’s first long-cane raspberry producers, the Klyn-Hesselink’s are betting that the Tulameen variety grown under protective tunnels will encourage other growers to offer a superior ready-picked and pick-your-own product. 


“The flavour is delicious,” says Christine Klyn-Hesselink. “Plus, it’s a raspberry that can be planted without worry of winter hardiness since the canes do not overwinter outdoors.” 


Soilless substrates


Coached by a virtual consultant in the Netherlands, Christine and her husband Dave have navigated a new growing soilless substrate protocol for this high-yielding raspberry variety that strains standard staking systems. Without proper supports, the fruiting laterals bow down, constraining the flow of nutrients to the fruit. In little time, the fruit dries up.


“You have to trellis properly with tape and staples, attaching the floral cane to the vertical bamboo stake,” says Christine.  “The horizontal shoots need to be supported as well. Once the trellis is installed, it’s permanent. The system is 70 per cent more efficient in fruit harvestability and with yields of 1.2 kg/cane.”


Dave Klyn-Hesselink explains that the kinks have been ironed out and that 40,000 canes are now available this year. A benefit of this whole-crop approach is that pots of raspberries can be taken out of cold storage and planted into fruiting fields, under cover, with estimated timing to fruit of about 12 weeks. He removed a batch of pots June 15, for example, with plans to sell fresh fruit about September 15.


To date, sales of Fenwick Berry Farm raspberries have been at the roadside market and through stores in the Niagara peninsula. But the quality and flavour are attracting fame beyond the locals. Representatives of retail chains are nosing around for larger volumes of the notoriously perishable raspberry. With shelf life of seven days and promise of  season-long availability from mid-June through October, Dave Klyn-Hesselink says the calculus is quickly changing to supply local raspberries to a much larger consumer base.


In no small measure, the Ready-Set-Grow propagation nursery may encourage other farmers to adopt the growing system and to create critical mass in the Ontario market.


Superlative flavour


In Québec, growing raspberries in soilless substrate has already been adopted where Ferme Onésime Pouliot has been a leader since 2008 trials. The owners, brothers Guy and Daniel Pouliot, have deep roots as seventh-generation growers of 200 acres of field strawberries on I’le d’Orléans, east of Québec City. Their investment in 16 acres of tunnel-grown raspberries has further cemented their berry reputation. Again, the Tulameen variety has topped the flavour charts in their breeding trials.


“It’s the best raspberry out there,” vows Joey Boudreault, business development manager, Ferme Onésime Pouliot.  “The Québec consumer has a very exacting eye for colour and favours a sweeter-tasting berry.”  


 Over the last decade, Ferme Onésime Pouliot has developed enough consistent supply to deliver to 80 Québec stores every summer morning. About half of the volume is sent directly to retailer chains’ warehouses. Plus some sales go to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York states. There are no on-farm sales. 


“We get a solid week of shelf life as long as there’s no break in the cold chain,” says Boudreault.


Ferme Onésime Pouliot did not expand its raspberry acreage for 2021, waiting out the ups-and-downs of the pandemic, but its four in-house breeders continue to search for varieties that might fruit earlier than Tulameen and, with luck, yield 1.2 to 1.5 kilograms fruit per cane.


These growers of strawberries and raspberries, in both Québec and Ontario, are examples of fearless innovators. They are tapped into global expertise, sustainable growing methods and consumer-pleasing flavour profiles. 


“I firmly believe that the North American berry industry is changing,” concludes Dave Klyn-Hesselink. “Growers large and small are quietly revolutionizing how raspberries are grown.”


Dusty Zamecnik agrees with how quickly the market is evolving. With an eye to the future, he’s propagating raspberries on an experimental basis and has set up performance trials in Leamington, Ontario greenhouses.  

Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind the Scenes' of the July 2021 this cover story and speaks with Dusty Zamecnik. They discuss the new technologies that are driving the strawberry greenhouse expansion, including global genetics for best flavour. Click here to listen!

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Monday, June 21, 2021

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