Ontario berry growers are global travellers with a keen eye. Once they see a new technology, whether it’s in the Netherlands, Spain or California, they figure out how to adopt and adapt to local conditions.
That’s the case with the innovative practise of growing strawberries on tunnel-protected, tabletops. Beginning in 2018, a handful of growers started to experiment with this Dutch-tested system that provides several advantages. First, it’s far easier to harvest berries at waist height than to bend over to the ground. Second, the harvested berries are of better quality because they grow in circulating air rather than close to the ground where they can be infected by soil-borne diseases. And growing under cover, the berries can’t be damaged by wind or splashed by rain.
Also, growers benefit from the water and fertilizer efficiencies gained by growing in a closed, soilless-substate system. Fertilizer application is reduced by being highly targeted and water, always a precious resource, can be recirculated.
The practise of growing day-neutral strawberries is common in California. The term refers to the light sensitivity of the variety. These ever-bearing varieties will blossom and set fruit regardless of how long or short the days are.
But as Ontario growers will attest, growing an ever-bearing strawberry that fruits from mid-May to October frost is not easy outside of a maritime climate. That’s why many berry growers hug one of the Great Lakes to catch the moderating winds and temperatures.
In the past, field strawberries hit their peak in mid to late June – a short-lived, two to three-week season depending on the weather. In Ontario, it’s now possible to buy local field strawberries for four to five months of the year. Growers have fine-tuned their management practices with varieties that can withstand hot and humid nights of peak summer, and yet continue bearing fruit. This practise produces berries in late summer that are just as juicy and flavourful as the ones you might have picked yourself in June.
About five years ago, a handful of Ontario greenhouse growers dared to attempt what their European counterparts were doing: grow a greenhouse strawberry in time for Valentine’s Day. Today, there are 50 acres of greenhouse-grown strawberries in the Leamington area.
It's innovative technology at its best with a controlled environment that is adjusted for every variable: temperature, humidity and water. In the depths of winter, growers have had to learn how densely to plant, how to calibrate fertilizer levels to seasonal sunlight variations, and how to establish artificial lighting that properly initiates bud development.
This attention to detail -- such as providing enough bees for full pollination—has paid off in year-long production. These locally grown berries are readily available in grocery stores all over Ontario at competitive prices. That’s good news for reducing the carbon footprint from trucking strawberries in from Florida or California. Winter strawberries without guilt, who knew?
Protected agriculture is a term that’s gaining traction. That’s because Ontario growers are anxious to control the vagaries of increasingly extreme weather such as rain, wind and hail, which is disastrous for the most tender of fruits, raspberries.
High tunnels are non-permanent structures that, literally, shelter berries from the storm. This result in a higher quality and quantity of fruit at your local market.
Of course, family outings for Pick-Your-Own raspberries will always be a summer rite of passage. But for growers supplying berries to the retail store market, high-tunnel technology helps to ensure tasty, local raspberries are available even when you can’t get out to the farm.
Hand-picked blueberries are a luxury. The process requires ready access to ample labour to ensure the berries are picked as they ripen. instead of falling to the ground. That’s why in many Ontario blueberry patches big machines can be seen lumbering through the fields to bring large quantities of ripe blueberries to your nearest market. These over-the-row harvesters have “fingers” which tickle the blueberry bunches from their branches, leaving the bushes undamaged and any un-ripened berries intact. The collected blueberries are then whisked off to be packaged for retail.