Dusan Kostic | Dreamstime.com
In B.C. we are lucky that from early summer to late fall, road trips include the delicious taste of locally grown berries. Take a figurative road trip now with Orchard & Vine as we look at how those berries – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cranberries – performed this year. Some went the distance and beyond, while others fell short of their anticipated destination.
The first to arrive are strawberries and this year’s crop definitely went the distance with estimates showing a rise in production, according to Sharmin Gamiet, association manager of the BC Strawberry Growers Association.
Fresh berry quantities are expected to come in 10 to 15 per cent higher when compared to 2012. Processed strawberries will also see an increase of about 10 per cent.
“I’m feeling very optimistic,” Gamiet says. “I think the fresh producers have reason to be optimistic, the ever-bearing varieties are working well for the growers.”
The weather, while ideal for road trips, impacted some of the earlier ever-bearing crop with an unusually long, hot, dry stretch, but this also worked to extend the season for many producers who were still picking at Halloween. June berries started early with the warm spring, but when the road trip weather turned to rain it truncated the season.
On the administrative front, let’s take a detour to Quebec, home of the growers association taking the lead on the proposed national strawberry council.
“It’s moving forward,” Gamiet says. “(The Quebec council is) preparing to submit a request to the Farm Products Council of Canada in the New Year.”
A little later in the season, when the unusual period of hot dry weather appeared, raspberries began their trip from field to market. Sadly, they didn’t quite go the distance this year, with an estimated drop to 16 million pounds from last year’s 18 million pounds, which unfortunately was a decrease from the year before as well.
Gamiet, who also serves as the executive director of BC Raspberry Growers, notes the decline wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“Acreages were converted to other crops and, during the early season, growers had challenges with diseases and pests,” she notes.
This year’s wildly variable weather caused mould in early varieties and scald in later ones. Those who avoided these issues had excellent berries if they were able to keep the spotted wing drosophila under control.
“It showed you need to be on top of this pest,” Gamiet says. “If you picked frequently, the challenge wouldn’t have been so great and if you’d been able to spray early and keep at it, it helped mitigate the problem.”
Like their cousins the strawberries, raspberry growers are in the early stages of forming a national council as they take their road trip to Ottawa for the next round of hearings. Gamiet feels the process has gone well so far.
Blueberries had a bumpy ride this year, keeping growers shy of their destination. Debbie Etsell, executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council, comments that challenges at the beginning of the season affected pollination and fruit set.
It is uncertain what caused the problems, but Etsell proposes there is the possibility that plants may not have “shut down” over the moderate winter.
“We’re estimating around 107 million pounds,” she notes of the year’s production, well down from last year’s 120 million pounds.
Another concern was what Etsell describes as a “blue wall” where early and mid-season varieties were blooming and ripening at the same time.
“It made it harder for the bees to get to everything,” she says.
Etsell also notes the long, dry stretch of heat created berries of excellent quality, but the “blue wall” caused all the berries to be ready at the same time.
“There was a lot of fruit coming through at once,” she says. “This pushed the limits of our packing and processing facilities.”
Adding to the blue wall was the fact that the top five North American blueberry growing regions had fruit on the market at the same time. As one can imagine, this created a pricing challenge.
“I’ve never seen this happen before,” says Etsell about the convergence of fruit from all regions.
Like raspberries, the spotted wing drosophila was a problem for those growers who didn’t pick continuously.
“(Growers) couldn’t wait until everything was ripe,” Etsell says. “They had to pick with reasonable management times and just had to keep at it.
Some of the growers who pulled out their raspberries turned to blueberries, but it will be a few years before returns are realized on that strategy.
“This is quite an investment for the raspberry growers because you don’t get anything coming in for production until the third year,” Etsell notes. “We are seeing more acres going in from existing growers. There’s a lot of continuing planting of blueberries. What is puzzling me is the amount of acreage still going in when something happens like this (the blue wall). That’s not to say something like this won’t happen again.”
The last berry on the road trip schedule is the cranberry. With harvests so late in the season, numbers aren’t yet available, but early predictions from Mike Wallis, executive director of the BC Cranberry Growers Association, are for an equal or greater volume to that of 2012’s 94 million pounds.
“Good weather during pollination equals lots of fruit set to take advantage of all that sunshine,” Wallis says. Recently planted fields becoming viable for production also contributed to the potential of an increase in yield.
The only pest of concern was the emerging tipworm. While it impacts a crop’s ability to produce fruit the following year, it was no more significant than past years.
A road trip is only as good as the weather and the berries available on the way. Overall this past year was a pretty good roadtrip for berry producers, with a few nasty bumps on the road for some. ■