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Greenhouse and field strawberry production could supply 50 per cent of Ontario’s needs


June 16, 2020
By Greenbelt Foundation (edited)

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Opportunities to expand both greenhouse and field-grown strawberry production could supply 50 per cent of the province’s annual consumption.

Between July 2018 and June 2019, Ontario consumed approximately 50,000 tonnes (110.2 million lbs.) of strawberries. 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.

The Greenbelt Foundation’s recent report has identified an opportunity to add 2,850 acres of field-grown strawberries in southern Ontario, based on an average yield of 3.5 tonnes/acre, potentially supplying 37.5 per cent of the province’s annual consumption. With day-neutral strawberries offering higher yields per acre, the acreage base increase could be closer to 1,500 acres. This expansion would be equal to a 150 per cent increase in field-grown strawberries and could generate a 130 per cent increase, or $45.5 million, in farm gate revenue.

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Greenhouse-grown strawberries in the province can supply a portion of the market through the October to mid-June period – before local field-grown strawberries are available. This indoor production complements field-grown strawberries, and year round greenhouse strawberry production allows for an expansion that exceeds the 37.5% of consumption to well over 50% of all consumption.

June-bearing vs. day-neutral

Traditionally, strawberries were harvested in June and July, but with the introduction of day-neutral strawberry varieties, strawberry season now runs until October. Traditional perennial varieties are called June strawberries, named after the month they start to have harvestable fruit. Fruit buds are set in August of the previous year when day-length shortens and become the harvested fruit the following June and July. Day-neutral strawberries are an annual variety planted in the spring with berries ready to pick about 12 weeks later. Day-neutral plants bear fruit through to the onset of cold weather and into October.

Production Issues and Expansion of Greenhouse Strawberries

Addressing some production challenges could bolster greenhouse production of strawberries. Some growers are experimenting with the right light spectrum and intensity throughout the growing season to optimize production and deliver on taste and texture attributes. The type of beneficial insects used to control pests and bees for pollination also requires some fine-tuning.

Indoor strawberry production may have better performance using different varieties than field production or are used in the EU (as tastes and preferences can be different), and varieties that are not grown outdoors. Plug plants or tray plants used in the greenhouse to begin production are typically provided from an outdoor propagation facility that does not provide the same level of disease-free seed stock as an indoor propagation operation. As the greenhouse strawberry sector grows, these cultivar and propagation issues will likely be addressed.

Challenges for growth

Ontario strawberry growers face some challenges – in particular, they have to compete with strawberries from large multinational suppliers like Driscoll, Natureripe, and Dole, which come in at lower prices. Growers, marketers, retailers, research and development institutions, and governments all have a role to play in expanding strawberry production. The following actions would enable expansion:

  • Growers and marketers should have a critical mass of day-neutral strawberries that compete with California strawberries available to supply major retailers from July to October.
  • Field strawberry growers and greenhouse strawberry growers could collaborate to offer a critical mass of strawberries year-round.
  • Retailers should feature Ontario strawberries in-store beyond the traditional June strawberry period, when consumers already expect to buy fresh Ontario-grown strawberries.
  • Retailers typically do not feature Ontario-grown day-neutral strawberries, which are available in other months, leaving them to be outcompeted by California strawberries.
  • Research and development institutions could restore a strawberry breeding program focused on developing day-neutral cultivars more suitable to Ontario growing conditions.

Other growing opportunities

The Greenbelt Foundation’s report highlights a timely opportunity to grow Ontario’s $2.2 billion fruit and vegetable sector, including more local production of fresh grapes, pears, strawberries, garlic, eggplant and sweet potatoes—as well as vertical farming. This expansion could result in up to $100 million in increased farm-gate revenue, making an important contribution to Ontario’s economic recovery.

“This report is very timely,” says Alison Robertson, Executive Director of Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA). “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.”