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  Strawberry Season
By JC Kenny - AgriNews Contributor

Local growers say poor weather conditions meant fresh strawberries weren't quite up to snuff this year.

"We were disappointed with the berry size," says Margaret Pyke, owner-operator of the popular Pykeview Farms in Gananoque.

Pyke says the "incredibly dry" conditions during April and May right away heralded a difficult season. "Eighty per cent of the berry is water. If it doesn't get the moisture it needs to fill out, it can't be the size it should be," says Pyke.

Like most commercial growers, Pykeview has its own irrigation system. As Pyke points out though, there still has to be enough water to feed the system, so it, in turn, can feed the crop.

"We do have irrigation from a spring-fed pond but there's a limit to the amount of flow ... so each time we just seemed to have enough water to get by before we got a helpful rain."

A lack of rain wasn't the only challenge facing growers. Pyke says a few really warm days early on shifted the season from its usual start time later in June.

"The season came in about ten days early," says Pyke. "The weather we had was really hot even though we weren't getting the moisture, we were getting the heat and that brought the berries on."

For Pykeview, where berry picking has been a yearly tradition since 1983, a double blow on the weather front led to a series of related problems. Due to the smaller berry size, says Pyke, many of the "pick your own" customers didn't take as many baskets away because the process took longer. As well, she says, the pool of students usually eager to make a few dollars by picking strawberries, was down considerably this year.

"Berry pickers can't make enough money because we pay by the basket ... Another complication was that the season was early and high school students weren't out until June 29th. We started picking around June 10th."

Having fewer pickers led in turn to fewer berries at the stand, says Pyke. She says there were times when people were actually turned away because there weren't enough baskets of already picked product. All staff could do was explain the situation to customers.

"In a lot of cases once we reminded them of the conditions ... most people were understanding," says Pyke. "Some people don't realize how affected berries are by the weather."

Because of the difficult weather conditions, or maybe in spite of them, Pyke found time to make a closer observation of the type of customers stopping by for berries. She says that while the family has never recorded actual numbers, this year they were quite aware of the difference in who was coming through the gate.

"We noticed that the demographics are changing. As the general population ages, the original strawberry pickers start to become disabled by this age and there's much more of a demand for the 'ready pick' at the stand."

The other difference, says Pyke, is that more people overall are looking for the already filled, and more expensive, baskets. "Both parents work ... people don't have the time they once did," Pyke reasons. She says customers are willing to pay extra for a full basket, thus avoiding the time and work it takes to pick their own.

During the actual picking season, Pyke says the weather took a turn for the better, at least during the first week. After that, she says, it got "rather hot and humid and we also got rain." That, too, affected the way Pykeview operated the business.

"People are like honey bees - they stay in when it's raining. We stayed open from 7am to 8pm. When it was raining there would be one or two cars, " Pyke recalls. "When the sun came out they would come flocking to the field like honey bees."

Still, when the season wrapped up, Pyke says there was clearly a difference in the net income. "You might say we took two-thirds of what we had hoped to take from the field."

The 12-acre farm on highway 32, with its Llamas, farm tours and sale of various produce, is part of a larger business run by the family. Pyke says her son also has a property on Wolfe Island with a herd of Buffalo and a number of cash crops. She says, however, Pykeview's performance is important, because it is "by far the biggest source of income."

While the weather did play havoc with the berry season, experts say it's unlikely to make or break any of the growers. Elaine Roddy is a vegetable crop specialist with OMAFRA. Roddy calls 1999 an "adequate" year.

"It wasn't a devastating year ... it was just average," says Roddy. "Things came on quickly because it was hot - a lot of sunshine, not too much rain."

Roddy says since most growers have their own irrigation systems, it's better to have conditions too dry than too wet. Roddy cautions "too much rain will cause a lot of mildew build-up," She says although the produce was smaller this year, decent amounts of sunshine still produced "nice sweet" berries, making for mostly satisfied customers. There was another weather pattern at play making things difficult for growers this year, according to Kevin Schooley. A fruit and vegetable crop specialist for OMAFRA, Schooley says there were a few nights of damaging frost around mid-May.

"When the strawberries were in bloom, we had four or five days - four nights in a row for sure of frost," says Schooley. "That makes for poor pollination."

Schooley says it's typically the first blossoms which feel the frost damage, big blossoms usually referred to as "King" berries. If those primary blossoms are no good, Schooley says the "secondary fruit" tries to compensate. But whereas the primary fruit is "usually singles," Schooley says the secondary will often grow "three to four on a cluster."

Schooley says like last year, this was not a banner season for growers. The last good year he can recall for weather and produce was 1997.

Looking at the results from his 12 acres North of Brockville, Robert Dentz says the season could have been a lot worse. "It started out really good ... it was really good for two weeks," says Dentz, head of the Leeds & Grenville Berry Growers association.

Dentz says because of the lack of rain during April and May, the business "pumped more water" than ever before from its own irrigation system. He says, however, it was the "extreme heat" that affected most growers in terms of berry quality and which ultimately shortened the season.

Dentz says even with a shortened season, he still managed to stretch picking out to four weeks and bring in "about the same" number of berries as last year.



Eastern Ontario AgriNews is published on the third Monday of each month. The printed version is distributed free by postal mail to farms in Eastern Ontario, Canada.

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