Sell strawberries from June to October
By Brandy Harrison
OTTAWA Last years bumper crop of fresh-picked strawberries that lasted well into September has Larry Shouldice racking his brain to perfect the finicky type of long-season berry that is still little-known to consumers.
“Well keep at it. Farmers like a challenge. If I didnt, I wouldnt be in business. Youre always trying to reinvent the wheel,” says the Ottawa-area berry grower, who heads to meetings for tips in the off-season, trial-runs new varieties every year, and has considered white plastic mulch and fall row covers.
For the last five years, Shouldice has experimented with day-neutral strawberries, which, unlike more ubiquitous June-bearing varieties, dont depend on day length to produce buds, and flower and fruit from May to early October, extending the selling season from one to five months of the year.
Still a fraction of his 100 acres of strawberries, Shouldice has gone from a half acre to five or six acres of day-neutral varieties and has finally worked out a few bugs. Hes hit on long-shelf life varieties that pass the taste test, uses raised beds with plastic mulch and drip tape, and lucked out with the right weather mix last year, including early planting without a spring frost and moderate temperatures with only a few days above 30 C.
Quality was better than ever and for the first time, there was no gap between June varieties and day-neutral production. But for a mid-September frost, he would have had fresh berries at Thanksgiving. “We never missed a day,” says Shouldice, who runs three pick-your-own farms and 18 roadside stands from Carleton Place to Ottawa with his wife, Shari.
After four years of tweaking technique, Avonmore berry grower David Phillips also bypassed a mid-season picking stoppage and had quality, yield, and taste that matched or bettered any other year.
But what works one year may not work the next, he cautions.
“You can never become complacent enough to say I know what Im doing,” says Phillips, who grows close to two acres of day-neutrals at Avonmore Berry Farm with his wife, Pamela.
Farmers interest is piqued, says Kevin Schooley, the executive director of the Ontario Berry Growers Association. He suggests more Eastern Ontario growers may try day-neutrals this year.
“They see an opportunity. People are starting to ask for them,” says Schooley.
Day-neutral strawberries arent new, but are gaining ground.
Introduced in the 1990s, day-neutral strawberries have been in Eastern Ontario for about a decade and werent widely grown until varieties better-suited for Ontario were developed, says Schooley. A quarter of Ontarios about 300 strawberry growers now plant day-neutrals, up from 10 to 15 per cent two or three years ago.
Yields and quality may surpass June-bearing varieties, but there is a catch.
Day-neutrals are as much as twice the cost and labour of June-bearing varieties, requiring annual planting by hand into raised beds with plastic mulch, often with drip irrigation to fertilize weekly. Runners need to be removed and its double the time to pick a basket.
But its worth it, Phillips says. “It keeps them coming to the farm gate longer and when theyre here buying strawberries, maybe theyll buy something else.”
The uphill battle is getting the word out to consumers who dont believe theyre local, says Shouldice, who hopes to one day have a pick-your-own patch. But with out-of-this-world flavour, people are coming around much like they did with sweet corn, which was all yellow 15 years ago, he says.
“Today, you cant give yellow corn away. Everyone wants peaches and cream. If the demand is there, weve got to find a way to grow them.”