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Manitoba fruit producers share secrets of their success

share secrets of their success


April 1, 2008
By Myron Love

Topics

Both Brian Schoonbaert and Murray
Boonstra say they became fruit growers because they thought it would
provide something for their children to do.

Both Brian Schoonbaert and Murray Boonstra say they became fruit growers because they thought it would provide something for their children to do.

“It turned out that our (six) children weren’t too enthusiastic about the hoeing, but they liked the business aspect of it,” says Schoonbaert, who grows saskatoonberries just south of Brandon, Manitoba, where the family lives year round. “The orchard is still a family effort. Even our married daughter still comes out every morning at 5:30 a.m. to help us pick the berries.”

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From left to right, Brian Schoonbaert, Murray Boonstra, and Alden Braul. 

Boonstra’s children were no more enthusiastic about working the strawberry patch than were Schoonbaert’s in the saskatoon orchard. Nonetheless, Boonstra and his family have built a successful strawberry operation.

Over the last 15 years, Murray Boonstra has built Boonstra Farms (www.boonstrafarms.com) into a thriving venture that includes 15 acres of strawberries, a corn maze and a petting zoo. The Boonstra Family bought the 160-acre dairy farm northwest of Winnipeg in 1988.

“After two years, we felt we needed more for the kids to do,” Boonstra said. “So we planted half an acre of strawberries. It was a challenge. We had never planted berries before. But people started coming to pick the berries and we saw the potential.”

Over the years, the Boonstra Family gradually increased their strawberry acreage. “We plant between 12 and 15 acres of strawberries a year, but there is enough demand for up to 40 acres worth,” Boonstra said. “We have a great location just 20 minutes north of Winnipeg.”

One of his main points was that berry growers don’t charge enough for their produce. “Too many growers see berries as a sideline, a way to make a little extra money,” he said. “You don’t have to be afraid to charge more. People are willing to pay. We charge the highest prices around at $7.75 a pail for you-pick and $12 a pail for pre-picked strawberries and we are going to be raising our prices.”

The Boonstras are successful, however, because they do more than just grow strawberries. They have added value to their operation with a petting zoo (added in 1997), a corn maze (begun in 1998), for which they charge $5 per person, and school tours from mid-May until the end of June, for which they charge $5.50 per student.

“We charge for the adults who come with the students as well,” Boonstra said. “Originally, we didn’t charge the adults, but we found we were getting more adults than kids in some of the school groups. We get as many as 100 kids a day coming with the school groups.”

Boonstra also emphasized the need for frequent publicity. He pays for advertising but he also looks for every opportunity for free publicity in the local papers.

“We are always looking for new ideas and ways to attract attention,” he said.

Brian Schoonbaert and his family bought an existing saskatoonberry orchard three years ago. “Both Mary Anne (his wife) and I were raised on the farm,” he said. “We both have full-time jobs in Brandon. Digging in the dirt is relaxation for us.”

They bought Hillview Orchard from the original owner who was having health problems. The orchard needed work. It was in disarray and diseased, Schoonbaert recalled. “We saw potential there,” he noted.

In 2004, Hillview Orchard produced more than 120,000 pounds of berries. You-pick accounts for 75 per cent of the crop with Schoonbaert and his family picking the rest.

“We do a lot of research and reading,” he said. “You have to keep up. For example, if you aren’t up on disease management, you could end up with a |disaster. We use a lot of pesticides. We tried an organic approach on one row in our first year and we lost all the plants.”

One practise of the Schoonbaerts that is distinct is that they use old, rotted manure to enrich their orchard’s sandy soil. To apply the manure, they bought a row mulcher using the Internet.

“We can see the orchard changing as we apply the manure,” Schoonbaert said.

The Schoonbaerts use drip irrigation with water from their well but prefer not to use the method if at all possible as the well water is saline.

Schoonbaert noted that he prefers growing saskatoons to processing them. And while he and his wife both work at other jobs and are not dependent on their saskatoon crop, they don’t see it as strictly a tax write-off.

“We think there is an opportunity to make some money at this,” he said.

Alden Braul from the Winkler, Manitoba-based Kroeker Farms, a prominent commercial vegetable grower (potatoes, onions), said the company recently decided to add raspberries to the crop mix.

They did their research before planting the raspberries. Braul visited growers across Canada to study their operations. In British Columbia, he noted, 90 per cent of the raspberries grown are used in processing with just 10 per cent set aside for the fresh market. In the rest of the country, most raspberries are for the fresh market.

Kroeker Farms started in 2004 with 20 acres. “We are considering planting another 30 acres,” Braul said. “We are using the biannual cropping system with ten-foot row spacing with two feet between plants. We are also thinking of planting red clover and using it as mulch and a source of nitrogen.”

For its raspberries, Kroeker Farms is trying an organic approach and using drip irrigation.

As for picking the crop, Braul estimated that would require 120 to 150 pickers per 20 acres. He suggested that Kroeker Farms could move some workers from the potato areas for a time to pick the raspberries. Another possibility would be to bring in some Mexican workers.

“It would be great to have a raspberry management club where we could get together and share ideas,” Braul said. “There are a lot of challenges in growing raspberries and a lot to learn.”