Strawberries are one of the world’s most popular fruits and taste additives, and when strawberry season comes to southern Alberta many begin to look for a local farmers’ market or u-pick to add farm fresh strawberries to that summer smoothie or autumn jam.
For local strawberry growers, demand in a normal year far outstrips supply, but in a hotter year like this one has been that supply challenge is further magnified.
“I have heard complaints that weren’t enough berries this summer for people to pick,” admits Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association executive director Conny Kappler, who is also the owner of Save Our Soils Farm Produce located near Rolling Hills.
“They would go out, and within a couple of hours everything was picked off.”
“When a strawberry plant flowers, it doesn’t like temperatures beyond 28 C,” agrees Willard de Wilde, owner of Skyview Acres near Nobleford and vice-president of Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association.
“Beyond 28 C what happens is we get heat blast, and the flowers don’t form into buds and you don’t get a berry. We had a lot of heat so it was hard on the berries. Without a cooling system, excessive heat affects the berries’ size and, for sure, the yield.”
Kappler has irrigation, but does not employ a cooling/ misting system in her fields. The irrigation prevented even greater heat damage to her crops, but her berries still experienced some of the effects of the monster heatwave southern Alberta experienced this summer.
“I think our strawberries definitely ripened smaller this year,” she says. “I wasn’t getting the bigger berries that I usually get.
“Now that it has cooled off a bit it seems like they are getting a chance to grow a bit bigger again. So it took more berries to sell for the same amount of money when compared to last year.”
That heat blast damage was likely even more magnified in dryland growers, says Kappler.
de Wilde does uses a state-of-the-art Netafim, droplet-cooling system on his strawberry plants. While costly to install, de Wilde grows strawberries as his cash-crop mainstay and felt the investment was worthwhile when he made it.
And it has proven its worth, he says, by extending his growing season into mid-October by protecting his berries from early frosts in previous years. It has now prevented catastrophic heat damage to his berry crop this year as well.
“Some days that was running up to 12 hours just to keep the field temperature cool,” he admits. “On days when we have 37 C, we can drop that temperature to 27 C. That’s how much difference that water cooling does.”
The cooling system however, could not prevent early hail damage to his crop back in June, says de Wilde, which wiped out all his early production.
“We run June bearers and day neutral (ever bearing) strawberries,” explains de Wilde. “June bearers produce at a high rate for three weeks and then shut off, and that’s the end of the berries you are going to get from that plant.
“The ever bearing plants begin producing early at the end of June or beginning of July. You get about three weeks off them too, and then they go dormant for a bit and come back in mid-August and produce right up to the end of October.
“We didn’t get any June bearers this year due to that hailstorm which came through.”
For Kappler the recent cooling trend is a mixed-bag as well. The good news is her later bearing strawberries are now coming in at normal size again, but now she is in a race against the frost to see if they will ripen in time to be marketable.
“That’s farming for you,” she says with a wry chuckle. “Of course, I am just seeing my first big berries now.”
For more information on how to become a strawberry grower in southern Alberta, and beyond, contact the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association by phoning (403)-964-FARM (3276), or go online at albertafarmfresh.com.