Healthy markets for fresh berries

September 28, 2009
Written by
With only a handful of exceptions, there is very little greenhouse berry crop production in North America. And given the growing consumer trend toward “Buy Local” foods, greenhouse growers could be missing out on a sizable market.

In southwestern Ontario, we look forward to the spring field-grown strawberry season, which is bountiful but short, and a much smaller fall harvest.

Out-of-season field-grown imports, usually quite plentiful in late winter, usually fare quite poorly with shelf life, given their days of transport after being harvested before they are ripe. And they can be pricey.

But what if we had locally grown greenhouse berries for out-of-season consumption? Is it feasible?

Indeed it is, though probably more so for raspberries than strawberries, according to the research.

Dr. Adam Dale, a professor with the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph campus in Simcoe, Ontario, has done considerable work with greenhouse berry crops. During a 2003 presentation at the Canadian Greenhouse Conference, he concluded that “raspberries are being grown commercially out-of-season in Europe and these production systems make this a feasible out-of-season crop in Ontario. Studies show that demand outstrips the supply, although consistent and increasing quantities of raspberries are being imported out-of-season. We have developed scheduling systems that are suitable for Ontario…. All of our economic models suggest that this crop is profitable and is worthy of consideration by growers looking to diversify.”

Dr. Marvin Pritts, a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University in New York state, has done extensive research on greenhouse strawberries and raspberries. He’s confident both would be market winners.

“At our orchard store, we sold greenhouse strawberries for $3.50 per pint during late winter and early spring, but we sold raspberries for $3 per half pint,” he said in a website posting, Berried Treasures: Off-season Production of Strawberries and Raspberries. “Although we sell everything that we can grow at our store, there is much less resistance to the price of raspberries.”

He noted that while “supermarkets brim with inexpensive strawberries in February and March, according to consumer surveys, strawberries are second only to peaches in rankings of poor and inconsistent quality. Surely a niche exists for consistently flavourful berries picked at the peak of ripeness and available to the consumer the day after harvest. Such fruit may be more expensive than field-grown berries from Florida, but the quality will be unrivalled.”

Speaking at an Ontario workshop several years ago, Pritts said New York state bedding plant growers were particularly interested in new crops for their empty, or near-empty, greenhouses in the fall and winter seasons. Raspberries are one answer. “They don’t require a lot of heat,” said Pritts. “They’re a cold-loving plant.”

We can’t underestimate the “Buy Local” sentiment in the marketplace, nor the commitment towards healthier diets (and fruits are at, or near, the top of the food chain in this regard). Greenhouse berry production is inevitable in North America. More research is needed to perfect the systems and determine the best varieties. The markets for berries, quite literally, couldn’t be healthier, whatever the season.

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