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Editorial: Supplying berries 365 days of the year

Supplying berries 365 days of the year

March 4, 2008  By Marg Land

Dr. Adam Dale, of the University of Guelph, and Dr. Craig Chandler, with the University of Florida, are working on a plan.

Dr. Adam Dale, of the University of Guelph, and Dr. Craig Chandler, with the University of Florida, are working on a plan.

The strawberry breeding duo is examining the idea of having growers in both Ontario and Florida produce – and market – strawberries all year round and believe a cross border partnership between the province and the state will result in that becoming a reality. By joining forces, the pair believes Ontario and Florida growers would be able to hold their own with the “800-pound gorilla” – also known as California – that currently dominates the North American strawberry industry. They described the plan during the Ontario Berry Growers’ Association’s recent 2008 annual meeting.

Under the current North American strawberry production system, California produces strawberries all year round. The state’s industry does this by shifting production up and down the coast, depending on the time of year. “They don’t do it in a single field; they do it in different plantings throughout the state,” explains Dr. Dale. “They may produce year round but different areas of the state produce at different times.”

Meanwhile, Ontario and Florida growers – when combined – also basically produce strawberries year round. North of the border, the season traditionally begins in late May/early June. Production remains constant until about late July with some day neutral varieties supplying the market until about late September. In late October/early November, the Florida strawberry season gets underway with production remaining constant through the winter months. After March 31, all strawberry production in Florida halts until the fall – the direct result of the market being saturated by California berries.

“We have two mutually exclusive seasons,” says Dr. Dale. “Perhaps we could co-operate.”

The strawberry breeders are envisioning a multi-pronged attack – marketing, co-operation and season extension.

Marketing: Supermarket chains are really only interested in one thing – having a steady, year-round supply of product, explains Dr. Dale. That’s why California berries dominate the big name food stores, even during Ontario’s traditional strawberry season. But he suggests growers move away from the supermarket chains, which represent about 10 per cent of the retail food market, and concentrate on accessing the other 90 per cent of the industry, which includes independent grocery stores, convenience stores, farm markets, drugstores, even gas stations.
“Why can’t we take over the other 90 per cent?” asks Dr. Dale. “California’s not interested in them.”

He describes a system of grower-controlled distribution centres, regional in scope and combining the product and resources of various growers. Ultimately, these centres would handle more produce than strawberries and would be geographically targeted to supplying the Toronto, Ottawa or London areas.

Co-operation: The plan is not only built around the idea of growers within Ontario or Florida working together but also growers within the province and state producing in harmony. Both areas would grow the same varieties of strawberries and each would help supply the other’s geographical region when domestic strawberry production was not possible; Florida supplying Ontario during winter and Ontario supplying Florida in the summer.

Season extension: Under the plan, Dr. Dale and Dr. Chandler would join forces to produce day-neutral strawberry varieties that would be capable of being produced under both Ontario and Florida growing conditions. To deal with current day-neutral variety issues, including propagation difficulties, inconsistent supply, and restricted planting dates, plus protect variety rights, the breeders would concentrate on developing seed-propagated varieties for use in a plug plant production system.

To help fill in some supply gaps in early spring and late fall, Dr. Chandler suggests growers could utilize high tunnels and floating row cover systems. As well, Florida growers could move some strawberry production to northern areas of the state to help even out production at those times of the season.

“We see this as a win-win situation for Florida and Ontario,” says Dr. Chandler. “We’re not competitors.”

What do growers think about the idea?

A small sampling showed most weren’t in favour of the plan. There were questions about the economics of the system, given differences between U.S. farm wages and Canadian rates, plus concerns about berries produced in Ontario being indistinguishable from berries grown in Florida. There was also little interest expressed in supplying the wholesale market, with some growers believing it would be extremely difficult to compete with the “800-pound gorilla.”

“California more than has its foot in the door,” said one grower. “They’re already in the room. And you’re going to have a hard time getting them out.”

It’s not a plan that will be put in place in the very near future. Drs. Dale and Chandler admit the economics of the idea still have to be examined. It would also take time for growers to shift production to a day-neutral growing system and at least five to 10 years to develop and establish seed propagated stock.

I look forward to seeing how the plan develops.

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