Crop diversification and fresh market sales are important at Webster Farms
March 15, 2008 By Dan Woolley
Webster Farms Ltd., owned and
operated by the three Webster brothers – Greg, Chris and Brian – is
located in Cambridge, less than 10 miles west of Kentville, in the
heart of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
For the Webster brothers, the name of the game in horticultural crop production is diversification.
Webster Farms Ltd., owned and operated by the three Webster brothers – Greg, Chris and Brian – is located in Cambridge, less than 10 miles west of Kentville, in the heart of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
The family “keys on” strawberries and raspberries as the operation’s major fruit crops, explains Chris, who recently hosted a tour of the operation for members of the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association.
The family grows about 26 acres in strawberries, all of which are managed as a fresh market product. The local processing market was dried up by increased outside competition and the rising cost of crop inputs, explains Chris, adding that the farm’s six-acre raspberry crop is also geared to fresh market consumption for similar reasons.
“You must have shelf life,” says Chris. Therefore, the Webster brothers concentrate on producing high quality berries to maintain their local retail market access. The farm’s light, sandy soils are planted mainly to Jewel and Seneca, varieties that Chris is quick to point out are not overly popular with many Maritime strawberry producers.
“They tend to work well for us on our site and our production system,” he explains, adding that Seneca and Jewel strawberries also have a good balance between shipping quality and flavour.
The Websters have dabbled in the production of Mira, a variety that has become increasingly popular with other Nova Scotia growers due to its ability to thrive in heavier soils. However, they found that although Mira produced a lot of large fruit and shipped well, it lacked the taste and sweetness of Seneca or Jewel, a necessary quality for their strawberries.
The Webster brothers tried Mira for just one season, shipping the crop to a Halifax jam manufacturer whose principal customer rejected the product because it looked like mud, says Chris.
The operation relies on two production management systems for its raspberry crop, planted exclusively with the Nova variety. In 2006, the brothers started work on a biennial raspberry production system developed by Dr. Jean-Pierre Prive, a fruit crop physiologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s research farm at Buctouche, New Brunswick.
The first year, they developed a block that was purely primocanes. In 2007, there are plans to apply Ignite to burn down the primocanes once they reach about three inches. The brother will need to re-apply Ignite two or three more times in order to create a block that is solely floracanes, explains Chris
It’s hoped this new biennial production method will help open up the raspberry rows and provide for better picking access to the canes. This means pickers will miss a lot less fruit during the initial harvest, resulting in a lot fewer over-ripe berries during the next picking.
Not only does the biennial system produce a much better, stronger primocane; there will be less disease pressure, says Chris. “It is something we feel will be more profitable down the road.”
The brothers have a further 30 acres planted to rhubarb. “We find it’s more of a biennial crop,” explains Chris, adding that only 15 acres are harvested each year. A complete annual harvest would eventually weaken the crop.
All of the rhubarb is grown for a local frozen food manufacturer, Sarsfield Foods Ltd.
Weed control is their biggest issue in rhubarb cultivation. Not only are there no herbicides registered for use on rhubarb, it is also a very unique crop to manage. “We have been growing rhubarb for over 20 years and, to be totally honest with you, we haven’t yet quite learned how to grow it,” admits Chris.
The Webster brothers grow two varieties – Sutton and Red Right Through – chosen for their ability to withstand the shock of the farm’s harvesting method better than other varieties. “We cut right to the ground,” explains Chris.
The Webster brothers also grow grain crops, using the resulting straw as mulch for their berry fields. According to Chris, using your own straw results in a cleaner strawberry field. When producers bring in off-farm straw, “You end up with a lot of weeds you don’t want.”
Webster Farms Ltd. also cultivates 125 acres of beans, principally Jacob’s Cattle, Yellow Eye and Soldier varieties. The bean crops are dried and packaged for local retail sale.
Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the Websters were the largest tobacco producers in the Maritimes. The family has been out of the tobacco market for more than 10 years but still use their former tobacco kilns to help dry the bean crop.
The farm employs about 20 workers – 12 full-time and eight permanent part-time over the slower winter months. In order to help maintain steady employment for their workers, the brothers operate a mill that builds boxes for the farm’s berry crops. It runs during the winter months. It’s not really profitable but it helps the farm maintain a steady, local workforce.
Even so, the brothers are facing a declining local farm labour supply and admit they may not be able to avoid hiring off-shore seasonal labour for much longer.
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