Strawberry Fields

And just like that, we find ourselves in June: “the growing month”.  The days get longer and longer, and our crops are responding – although agriculture in North America has been a bit tricky as of late, with wet patterns slowing down planting, both locally and across many of the grain producing regions in Canada and the Midwest.  Everything is about timing right now, and having all of your gear in order to make the most of these small windows is critical.  The grease is flowing here, and inspections whenever we hook to another implement it is essential.  A little look can save a lot of grief, as the saying goes: “Everything on the farm is a 3/8″ bolt away from three days of repairs”.   Of course, I completely trashed our fertilizer spreader yesterday.   Ah well, I got it for $200 seven years ago, it’s earned its rest.

This time of the year can be a real crapshoot for weather.  We want some moisture to help seedings, and a bit of cool weather helps transplanted crops weather the shock of being pulled from their little trays and shoved in the ground.  At the same time, some nice hot weather will really push things along and give us ample opportunity for fieldwork.  Hay species are rapidly maturing and dry ground and firm fields are essential to pull the high quality early crops off.  There really is no “ideal” right now: you just deal with what we get.  The moisture we’ve received over the past 24 hours is certainly less than ideal.

The main concern for us right now is our strawberry crop.  Our little half acre of strawbs is not an economic cornerstone of the farm as a whole, but as a means to have a “dainty”, high value crop to pull customers in before main season produce comes on, it is extremely valuable.  We haven’t had strawberries for three years now (the crop we’re dealing with was planted last year), and we are trying our best to get you an as bountiful and high quality harvest as possible.  It’s not easy.

Strawberries, as we know them, are a case study in globalization.  I’m sure you are familiar with wild strawberries, plants like this are common in temperate areas around the world, and cherished since forever.   The current incarnation of a large, juicy berry did not come into existence until the mid 1700’s: when French horticulturalists developed a cross of wild strawberry strains gathered from eastern North America and Chile.  This “globalized” aspect of strawberries continues to this day, as the the growing, harvesting and sales of the delicious berry (although technically not a berry – it is an “aggregate accessory fruit” – who makes these rules?) transcends international borders and has become a year round staple for western consumers in both fresh and processed forms.

So, we went from “tiny berry that is painstaking to harvest, only available for two weeks in the Spring, and a commercial nonentity” to “Yes I expect to be able to buy fresh, completely unblemished berries 365 days of the year.”  How does this happen and what does it mean for a tiny farm like ours? 

When I lived in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, you would see massive fields of strawberries – yet it was very uncommon to find fresh local fruit, but… that wasn’t the point of the crop.   In October and November, large harvesting rigs would be out in the mud, digging up the dormant plants – to be shipped to Florida (where they don’t have the “chilling” hours) and planted, so that Northerners could buy them in the early spring!  We also happen to get our strawberry plants from Nova Scotia.

Most of the strawberries in North America are generally produced in California, and owing to the climate and constant improvements in breeding, we have accustomed ourselves to flavourless, tough strawberries whenever we like. (The same being true of Spain in the European market). The latest innovation in here in Canada for berry production has been the adoption of “day neutral” varietals (they flower and fruit regardless of day length) in the massive greenhouse complexes around Leamington.  I’ve begun to see these at Loblaws under the “PC” brand, and they are at least better than the styrofoam berries from California.  They are projected to become the norm here in the next several years.

But here on our farm, what we are trying to produce is the classic “June bearing” strawberry.  Grown in the soil, ripened under the sun and subject to countless foes: environmental, microbial, winged, six and four legged.  Of course, we are not the first to attempt this, and there are many adaptations to these problems.  The two main problems with strawberries are weeds and fungus.  Conventionally, weeds are controlled in strawberries with a variety of herbicides.  Forgoing them in this case, we have relied on plastic mulch and a great deal of (imperfect) hand and mechanical weeding.  The even more troubling aspect is rot.  It can steal a crop from you at the very last minute as various metrics of weather conditions will prompt the development of pathogens that rapidly turn one of nature’s finest delicacies into inedible slime overnight.  I can’t blame the little microbes – I love to eat strawberries too!

The solution to this is fungicides. Although not often considered when discussing agricultural inputs, they have been universal in the fruit and vegetable industry for some time now, and are also becoming common inputs for commodity crops like grain and legumes. The original fungicide was copper sulfate, discovered by accident as a potential solution to some of the blights suffered in the French wine industry during the 1800’s (another Globalization issue, these diseases ran rampant through vineyards weakened by an imported New World aphid brought back to Europe on North American grape vines for breeding).  A botany professor noticed that some vines near roadsides, sprayed with copper and lime (as a bitter tasting visual deterrent against snacking pedestrians!) actually effectively resisted fungal diseases, and so “Bordeaux Mixture” was born. 

A surface fungicide, it is quite effective, and considered “organic”, although its prolonged use can toxify soils with excess copper. More recently, “systematic” fungicides have been developed.  Much more effective and long lasting, they are incorporated *into* the crops, and don’t function “on” the foliage and fruit, but rather, work inside of them.  They are absorbed through the leaves’ stomata and flow throughout the the plant.  They very effectively curtail spoilage (which is why you can get unblemished raspberries from Chile), but this also means that you eat them.  You can’t wash them off, you can’t rub them off of your shirtsleeve.  Ostensibly, they’re safe – they’ve been fed to rats and gerbils and dogs before we get to ingest them- you can read about some info on cyprodinil, for instance, to that effect.

So in lieu of selling you strawberries covered in bitter tasting copper, or full of chemicals whose names I can’t pronounce, what we have been attempting to utilize instead of these are probiotic bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) that colonize and coat the surface of the strawberries before the bad guys can.  Even when trying to use “natural” and “organic” products, the spray we are using, Serenade, is brought to us by the world’s biggest drug company: Bayer – there is no escaping these guys.   Current conditions are going to push mold pressure to the max, so we will see how well this stuff works.

A brief aside, it is very funny in the pesticide industry how the products are named.  Organic products have nice sounding names like “Serenade” and “Entrust”, while conventional products have much more aggressive sounding names like “Viper” or “Vengeance”.  I can’t help but chuckle at the marketing.

Anyhow, I don’t mention all of this to say “look how good we are and how bad big farmers are”.   Conventional crop protection is there for two main reasons: 1) farmers can’t afford to lose crops.  If you’re going to grow hundreds of acres of high value fruits or veg, you can’t just let them rot in the field – it’s not that they want to kill you; and 2) the fact is that consumers just will not buy blemished produce.   I know we all like to think “Ah, I’m not fussy, I’d take the wormy corn or the fruit with a touch of mold” but I can tell you after hanging around horticulture for 20 years that we just really don’t.  I mean why would you buy an ugly product when you can buy a pretty one instead?  We eat with our eyes first after all. 

The main reason I’m hesitant to go full “better living through chemistry” on the farm is that I live here.  I have little kids that run butt naked all over the place and we like to just wander out and grab our supper without worrying about how many days it was that we sprayed X.   A lot of crop protectants are quite safe and generally benign to human health.   Some are really bad for you though and you don’t want to be around them.  So, we try to walk the middle path.  The idea that there is some sort of “magic bullet” to any problem in farming is a myth: every decision has pros and cons.  “Growing things naturally” has already been perfected by Mother Nature, and she grows strawberries in clearings and ditches for a week or two a year and though they’re tasty, it takes quite some time to gather a handful  Growing economically viable crops in nice clean straight rows is the opposite of “natural” and so we sweat and toil and worry and sweat some more and hope to at the very least not lose money and that our customers are happy and come back next year.

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