Greenhouse and field strawberry production could supply 50 per cent of Ontario’s needs
By Michael Young
By Michael Young
With strawberry season upon us, what better time than now to explore producing more of this Ontario favourite close to home? A new report by the Greenbelt Foundation highlights how opportunities to expand production of strawberries and a number of other crops could bring in $100 million in added revenue for southern Ontario farmers and stock store shelves with more local fruits and vegetables.
According to Plant the Seeds: Opportunities to Grow Ontario’s Fruit and Vegetable Sector, Ontario consumed approximately 50,000 tonnes (110.2 million lbs.) of strawberries between July 2018 and June 2019. Currently, Ontario’s 675 strawberry-growing farms produce 6,000 to 7,000 tonnes of the crop each year, which represents 14 to 16 per cent of the province’s annual consumption. However, there is an opportunity to grow production, supplying 50 per cent of the province’s annual consumption to bring in an additional $45.5 million in farm-gate revenue.
The report identifies an opportunity to add 2,850 acres of field-grown strawberries in southern Ontario. Based on an average yield of 3.5 tonnes/acre, this could supply up to 37.5 per cent of the province’s annual consumption. Day-neutral strawberries could increase this expansion further, with higher yields per acre, meaning acreage could increase by only 1,500 acres and still represent a 150 per cent increase in field-grown strawberries.
Adding to it, greenhouse-grown strawberries can help lengthen the market through the October to mid-June period – before local field-grown strawberries are available. Year-round indoor production can complement field-grown strawberries, allowing for an expansion that exceeds 37.5 per cent of consumption to meet well over 50 per cent of Ontario’s needs.
Ontario strawberry growers face some challenges. In particular, they have to compete with strawberries from large multinational suppliers such as Driscoll, Natureripe, and Dole, which come in at lower prices and can offer a critical mass of strawberries year-round to retailers. Additional greenhouse strawberry production, however, would help provide a more consistent local supply. Further to this, an alliance between field growers and greenhouse growers could provide major buyers with their 52-week strawberry supply requirement.
This presents a key opportunity for greenhouse growers to access unrealized revenue and help the province reduce its reliance on foreign imports. Depending on the specific operation, greenhouse growers may only have to make minimal investments in equipment and plants in order to rise to this opportunity. Some growers are experimenting with light spectrum and intensity to optimize production, taste and texture. Beneficial insects and pollination bees are also being fine-tuned, while others are exploring varieties different from field production, specifically for indoor cultivation and the North American market.
With COVID-19 slowing Ontario’s economy, the expansion of key crops is an important avenue for rural economic stimulus. As Kathy Macpherson, vice-president of Greenbelt Foundation articulates, “If Ontario can provide a greater critical mass of strawberries and throughout more of the year, a virtuous cycle could develop where consumers start expecting more local strawberries, and the market is driven forward.”
Ultimately, growers, marketers, retailers, research and development institutions, and governments all have a role to play in expanding strawberry production. Alison Robertson, executive director of Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA), calls the report “timely” and says that, “as Canadians emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, it is my hope that the public and governments have a new appreciation for food sovereignty and security. As we continue to address ongoing challenges in the agri-food sector, such as competing in a global market and declining margins, we must also explore opportunities to increase Ontario production.”
Michael Young is the communications advisor for the Greenbelt Foundation.