A first-of-season favourite, strawberry production has made big strides over the last few decades, including ever-bearing varieties that help extend the short, sweet season. EZ Grow has been producing strawberry nursery plants for more than 30 years for strawberry growers across North America. From their Norfolk County location in Langton, Ont., they produce about 20 different varieties to suit local conditions for field production across North America, plus a few of the Caribbean islands.
“We started providing strawberry nursery plants to greenhouses a few years ago when some greenhouse growers in Ontario were first toying with the idea of growing strawberries under glass,” says Darryl. “We had grown blueberries and rose bushes in greenhouses and were familiar with what was involved, so we decided to add it to our mix.”
The industry was also starting to make rumblings about how the greenhouse sector needed a strawberry program. Grocery chains were wondering why berries couldn’t be grown under glass to extend the season, like cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.
What the Canadian industry was missing were the proper nursery plants that would be mature and programmed to produce at the right time of year.
Finding varieties for Canadian consumers
“Europe had already been producing greenhouse strawberries for about 20 years, and Dusty went to the Netherlands and other European locations which got us really started in the greenhouse strawberry nursery business,” says Darryl.
But simply transferring practices used in Europe to grow greenhouse strawberry plants in Canada doesn’t work. “The climate and consumer preferences are very different,” he says. That’s why EZ Grow Farms has invested effort and resources to produce plants that not only develop the kind of strawberries wanted by Canadian consumers, but are also tailored to our unique climate.
The strawberry plant is a very complex creature. Successful growing techniques are generating plants that range from June-bearing varieties which produce for three to four weeks, to ever-bearing varieties that yield up to 12 months based on the correct conditions provided in a greenhouse. “The market is further segmented based on varieties that need more or less chilling to initiate flower production,” says Darryl. “And we control the biggest part with our nursery plants – how and when the greenhouse strawberry plant starts its lifecycle.”
Strawberry nursery plants that are destined for greenhouses can require climate-controlled storage for extended periods of time. Mature plants can be stored before shipping to customers in these ideal conditions, depending upon the variety and its end use. A critical number of chilling hours is needed for the nursery plant to produce berries in a greenhouse during the off-season.
Ideal flavour in every plant
Aside from the obvious appeal of enjoying local, fresh strawberries all year long, other factors are driving the demand for greenhouse strawberries.
“Fruit studies and taste panels on greenhouse strawberries all reveal that the fruit tastes ideal,” says Darryl. “You can get the fruit quality in field production, of course, but rain and temperature can make drastic changes. In the greenhouse, that ideal flavour can be there in every plant, every day.”
Darryl also expects that the price and consistency in quality of indoor-grown strawberries will begin to give the greenhouse product more space on grocery store shelves.
Quality begins in the soil
When EZ Grow Farms first began supplying greenhouse growers with strawberry nursery plants in 2009, they filled each plug of every tray by hand with a soil mixture. The root plug was then inserted to grow out the plants in their own greenhouses before shipping to greenhouse strawberry growers for commercial production. Filling by hand was labour-intensive but followed the same process that they used for their field strawberry nursery plants.
In 2018, they took a leap to automate part of the process, providing more consistent soil density for every greenhouse strawberry nursery plant. “We’d been interested in a new tray filler that auto fills the tray plug with soil,” says Darryl. “Improving the consistency of the soil in each plug is critical for soil moisture, root growth and ultimately plant production.”
With support from the Greenbelt Fund, EZ Grow Farms invested in a new tray filler packing machine that auto fills each plug with soil, and tips are then rooted manually.
“Our first year with the filler was 2018. We had a marked increase in nursery plant quality and our sales of greenhouse strawberry plants are increasing steadily,” says Darryl. “It was a big help to have this support from the Greenbelt Fund because this start up project is really small scale. The funding helped reduce the threshold we needed to take on this investment.”
Boost to local economy
“We are always interested in new ventures, especially in how the various assets of our operation are utilized,” says Darryl. “We were looking at how to segue some of our existing assets – including our large cooling facilities – to grow greenhouse strawberry plants for a growing market. The other crucial aspect was labour.”
Expanding their operation to automate greenhouse strawberry nursery plant production with the new tray filling equipment has brought additional benefits to EZ Grow Farms. “We’ve been able to offer employees more hours during times of the year when we wouldn’t otherwise have work for them,” says Darryl. “Five of our employees that were part-time are now full-time. And we can attract employees with a competitive salary, year-round work and a health care plan. It’s also dramatically increased our part-time summer labour needs, including students in the local area.”
They are also now able to offer more work to seasonal staff. By collaborating with other farms in the area, they can now provide seasonal employment from the end of March until early November.
A measured approach to a new market
EZ Grow Farms is one of only a handful of greenhouse strawberry nursery plant producers in Canada – and the Canadian market is on par with U.S. production. Darryl estimates the new venture represents about six to seven per cent of their total business. “The learning curve has been steep with our customers,” he says. “But we now have greenhouse strawberry varieties that are keeping greenhouse producers and their consumers happy.”
His advice to others looking to diversify in new markets is this. “Take a slow approach. It’s currently a small market for us but there is definitely potential there.” With the lessons learned in growing greenhouse strawberry nursery plants, Darryl says greenhouse raspberries and blueberries might be next.