Berries worth waiting for

ST. WILLIAMS The strawberry crop in Norfolk is later than usual but all indications are it will be worth waiting for.As it happens, berries love this spring’s cool wet conditions.It makes for a later crop, says Kevin Schooley, executive director of the Berry Growers of Ontario, but the quality is there, as is the yield and size. Indeed, indications are this year’s crop could produce a record harvest.“We’re hearing the message that everything is later than normal,” Schooley said Tuesday in St. Williams.“But we’re also getting the feedback that everything is looking great. Our acreage is no more than it has ever been, but we’ve been having the weather they like – that cool coastal climate where they thrive.“It gives the plants longer to develop and more time for the fruit to fill out. We’re hearing the fruit will be a good size. It also bodes well for raspberries and blueberries.”Schooley and 20 others – mostly food writers, bloggers and social media influencers from the Toronto area – took part in a farm tour Tuesday in Norfolk.They came to the epicentre of Ontario berry production to meet farmers first-hand and discuss production techniques and challenges. The intelligence they gathered will be shared with food-conscious consumers in the city and beyond.The day-long visit featured stops at Blueberry Hill Estate in St. Williams and Strawberry Tyme near Vittoria.One of the more high-profile guests was Sue Mah, a dietitian in Toronto who frequently appears on City-TV, CTV and CBC television. Mah also lectures at Ryerson University and has a large following on social media.Mah was eager to visit Norfolk following new research confirming that Ontario berries are a superfood with numerous health benefits.“One of the biggest areas of research has been around blueberries and mental health,” Mah said. “One cup to 1 1/2-cups a day can improve cognition and memory. And with no detrimental effects. Blueberries are a real powerhouse for brain health.”The host at Blueberry Hill Estate was Nick Vranckx, who spoke about market demand and how it has encouraged his family to plant 13 different varieties.This diversity provides for early pickings and late pickings, big fruit and small fruit, and acidic berries versus sweet berries.Vranckx also spoke about the challenges of bringing a harvest to market. His 12-acre high-bush crop requires, at the peak of the season, 100 pickers — all of them local.He mentioned that growers have all kinds of tricks to keep birds from stealing their crop. These range from lasers to air cannons to loud recordings of birds in distress. Some growers are experimenting with drones.The worst pest of all, Vranckx added, is the spotted-wing drosophila, a fruit fly native to Asia that has been a serious problem in Ontario and around the world now for five years.With a population that peaks in early September, the insect is so destructive that it can shorten the blueberry harvest by two to three weeks.“It’s a global problem,” Vranckx said. “Hopefully, a global solution will come out of it.”Down the road at Strawberry Tyme, the guests got a first-hand look at a new approach that eliminates the back-breaking aspect of the harvest.The Cooper family this year is experimenting with plants in soil-free, elevated gutters. This allows workers to stand and pick the fruit at waist level.This approach is well-established in Europe. Good results here suggest this innovation could become standard within the local industry.MSonnenberg@postmedia.com

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