Trimming strawberry runners in a newly renovated BC Hothouse facility in Delta, British Columbia, a worker appears at ease, safely cocooned from the daily horror playing out at the cliff’s edge of the democratic free world.
There can be no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 is having a reverberating, and likely long-lasting, effect on global food supplies and distribution. One such outcome - incentivizing investment in domestic food production – is a bet that’s already in play in Canada, fueled by sustainability initiatives and COVID’s ‘buy local’ sensibility.
BC Hothouse, a subsidiary of The Star Group, made the move to strawberries pre-pandemic, pre-war. Betting “all in”, the company has just named Colin Chapdelaine as president of its newly formed Berry Division, headquartered in Surrey, British Columbia. Chapdelaine is a 23-year veteran of the parent company and is no stranger to working with greenhouse vegetable growers.
“Strawberries, without a doubt, are a very, very complex crop,” says Chapdelaine. “Getting the right plants to start with is key and to ensure that happens, we’re doing our own propagation. To move from five acres in 2020 to 25 acres in 2022 is not the usual crawl-walk-run scenario.”
Demand for locally-grown berries is driving the push for BC Hothouse to produce its “Just Picked” brand with retail prices that range from $4.99 to $6.99 for a 12-ounce top-sealed clamshell.
“Greenhouse berries are expensive to produce when compared with the field berries,” says Chapdelaine, “but we’ve been successful in shipping berries throughout British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan as well as the Pacific Northwest.”
The cost of freight is one factor leading BC greenhouse growers to think they can be more competitive and more sustainable vis-a-vis California field-grown strawberries. It’s a balancing act though as growers still need to source inputs and talent from Europe.
“The geopolitical arena is a big black box,” says Chapdelaine. “We used to order coco from the Netherlands with a shipping container cost of 2,500 euros and since last year, the cost of that same container is now up to 12,000 euros. And the supply chain is such that we sometimes have to wait up to six months for delivery of some items.”
Even worse, the pandemic put pressure on the ease of essential travel for European technicians to come to Canada to service high-tech greenhouses and other specialized equipment. In the face of such challenges, The Star Group continues to push on with its research into new strawberry varieties, as well as blackberries and future game-changers such as robotic picking.
“We will continue to disrupt the berry category with our goal being to produce the best-tasting strawberries in Canada,” says Chapdelaine.
In Ontario, Vineland Growers’ Cooperative has completed its first year of distributing and marketing ever-bearing and June-bearing strawberries for the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association for the 2021 season. Although the Cooperative is mainly known for its prowess in handling large volumes of the tender fruit in the Niagara Peninsula, it handled some Ontario-grown strawberries a few years back. This time, the Cooperative’s return to a field-grown strawberry program incorporates new production practices and signals a renewed commitment.
“We already handle a lot of the packaging needs for strawberry growers,” says Matt Ecker, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Cooperative. “So it was a logical move. We are striving to be the one-stop shop for locally-grown fruit in Ontario.”
Growing practices have changed in recent years, with table-top troughs being used by several growers. Hydroponically-grown using a nutrient-balanced solution and outdoors under plastic tunnels, strawberry plants now yield fruit from May to October. The method also means that table-top strawberries dodge soil-borne diseases often associated with field production while still allowing for natural pollination, just like field systems.
“Sustainability is very important to our retail customers,” says Ecker. “We can now supply locally-grown strawberries almost six months of the year. Berries are picked in the morning, cooled in the afternoon, shipped in the evening and ideally on store shelves the next morning.”
Ecker says the Cooperative has its sights set on raspberries next. If growers can finetune their growing practices -- primarily in chilling the canes and bringing them out of dormancy at the right time – then higher yields and better shelf life are anticipated.
Another homegrown company, ecoation, plans to extend its current robotic and AI ag-tech knowledge to both greenhouse and field berry growers who are growing on waist-high tables. Led by Dr. Saber Miresmailli, ecoation has partnered with JEM Farms to build a North American Horticultural Technology Center & Academy (HORTECA) on two acres in Ruthven, Ontario, located in the heart of Canadian greenhouse businesses.
The discovery center is equipped with the latest commercial growing technologies such as AI-controlled climate computers, air management technology, precision lighting and IPM crop assessment tools. Historically, ecoation made its name providing IPM solutions that address time-consuming manual labour tasks, quality management and residue-free production. But that’s in the process of expanding, says Mary Haurilak, ecoation marketing manager.
“Building on our current OKO platform, in the future we will able to provide yield assessments,” she says. “This is now in progress for tomatoes, but doing this for berries is on our list. We’re already working with a blueberry grower in Mexico, and several strawberry farms in Ontario. Peppers are next.”
With so much stress on supply chains, Ontario greenhouse growers such as Mucci Farms understand the advantage of being able to forecast fruit yield, size and ripeness with accuracy. The ability to schedule picking, packing, and shipping for retail customers 10 to 14 days before harvest would represent a big win.
According to Haurilak, ecoation’s researchers have also reconfigured its current web platform in use at tomato farms so that strawberry farms can capture crop data such as pest issues, crop work, and in the future, fruit count, all by cell phone. Once the data is collected, it is stored in the Cloud for analysis. As the app becomes more developed, this would surely be a transformative milestone for field strawberry growers.
The spring equinox has signalled more change than usual in 2022. The world community is uniting to support Ukraine and its fight for self-determination. Can Canadian businesses and governments likewise find common purpose for self-reliance in domestic food production? Perhaps. This past month, the Weston Family Foundation signalled its intent with $33 million in its Homegrown Innovation Challenge earmarked exclusively for Canadian berry production.
Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, is Digging Deeper into April 2022 cover story titled Wanted: Canadian-grown berries for all seasons and speaking with Colin Chapdelaine. Listen to the podcast here >>