By Andrew Campbell
If the summer season had a taste, it would likely be the sweet taste of strawberries. Those little red gems, picked at their freshest peak from the farm, do wonders to any salad, dessert or just straight from the box. But for any strawberry farmer, the work isn’t just picking them. There are hundreds of hours that go into making sure the strawberry plants have a healthy start and are looked after all year long.
For the Heeman family, strawberries have been part of their family farm for decades. And because of their experience in growing them, along with retailing from the family’s store, third generation strawberry farmer Will seemed like the perfect person to quiz on everything that goes into making sure every juicy berry bite you take, is as good as the last. Or, if you’d rather find out the recipe of the freshest tasting strawberry shake you’ll ever have, check the full video at the end. But first, here are some frequently asked questions about how strawberries grow.
Do farmers plant strawberry seeds in the field?
Field strawberries are planted from a strawberry root, not a seed. Most varieties of field strawberries are hybrids, which means that plant breeders have cross-pollinated two different varieties to improved disease resistance, berry size, plant size… Therefore, to ensure that those traits are present and consistent across the field, farmers plant their strawberries from roots. The roots are from runners that come from the hybridized strawberries.
If you planted seeds from a hybridized plant, there would be a mix of results from each parent plant as well as different combinations of traits from each parent plant rather than the specific combination of traits that the plant breeder cross-pollinated for to achieve the hybridized plant.
What do farmers do to plant all the strawberry roots?
Farmers use a machine called a transplanter to plant the strawberry roots in the field. The transplanter is pulled through the fields behind a tractor.
Check out this video of the strawberry transplanter on Heeman’s Farm. This transplanter has eight seats, side by side, and a bin full of strawberry roots for each seat so that the transplanter can plant four rows at once. Staff work in planting pairs that work together to plant 1 row. Spools which are set above the seats hold drip tape that is fed into the soil for trickle irrigation. As the tractor drives forward, it spins the planting wheels. Each planting pair takes a turn to place a strawberry root into the plant holder found at intervals along the end of the planting wheel. The roots are squeezed by the plant holder until they reach the bottom of the wheel and are let go into an open trench and packed down.
What is drip tape and why do farmers put it into the soil?
Drip tape is like a flat garden hose with small holes that allows the water to drip out under the strawberries to provide water efficiently to the root of the plant. Not only does this method send water directly to the root system where it is needed; it also minimizes the amount of water used. Drip tape uses 75 percent less water than a conventional system that waters overhead.
How do strawberries grow?
Strawberries produce flowers that in turn bear fruit. The yellow center of each little flower is actually where the plant is pollinated. Once pollinated, the flower petals fall off and the yellow center starts to grow and becomes a strawberry. Each strawberry branch (also known as “flower truss”) has three to eight flowers if you’re really lucky.
The king fruit is the first berry to grow and will be the first one that farmers pick. It is also the biggest berry. People in Ontario often note that strawberry size can really vary. Unlike imported berries, these strawberries actually change size as they develop. They put the most energy into the first berry (the king berry) and so that strawberry is going to be the biggest but the berries do get a bit smaller as the season goes on. As pickers go through, they sort the strawberries into packages by size.
Why do farmers put straw around their strawberry plants?
When farmers grow strawberries, they actually put straw down between the rows for multiple reasons. Putting straw down helps to keep down the weeds, plus it helps keep the strawberry plants insulated over the winter and keeps the berries nice and clean when it is muddy after rain.
Is there more than one type of strawberry? And what is a row cover?
There are several different types or varieties of strawberries. Improved farming methods and plant breeding means stronger plants, so unlike when we were younger where we’d only have strawberries for three to seven weeks, now the strawberry season is five months long.
The traditional June-bearing strawberry from your childhood and what your grandparents would have grown, only flower on long days. When the day lengths start to get longer in the spring, the plant flowers and then 30 days after flowering, produces a berry. If farmers had only one variety to plant, their strawberry season would only last about two weeks.
The everbearing strawberries–which are relatively new–are amazing because of the length of their season, but also flavour-wise too. They start producing as early as May and go until November. Everbearing strawberries are a day-neutral variety which means the plants just have to be warm enough to grow instead of being dependant on day length.
Canadian strawberry farmers have multiple varieties, including some that produce fruit early, some that produce midseason and some that are later-season varieties. By diversifying the varieties and by putting on row covers to give the strawberry plants a little extra warmth in the spring, farmers now have a longer season. Row covers can add an extra seven days to the season and bring plants into production even earlier.
Are strawberries high in pesticides?
Have you heard of the Dirty Dozen? It’s a list published yearly by an environmental group in the United States to identify fruits and vegetables the group claims contains high pesticide residue levels. Strawberries often rank highest on the list, but scientists around the world have debunked the Dirty Dozen list.
Health Canada is responsible for ensuring all pesticides are safe for both people and the environment, whether they used for conventional or organic production. This includes taking into account pesticide residues on food. While most fruits and vegetables in Canada do not have any detectable levels of pesticide residues, it’s important for people to understand that simply being able to detect the presence of residues on food does not mean there is a safety concern.
Science has become so precise that residues can be measured in parts per billion. That’s the equivalent of one second in 32 years, a drop of water in an Olympic size swimming pool or one blade of grass in a football field.
According to an online pesticide residue calculator, safefruitsandveggies.com, a woman could consume 454 servings of strawberries in one day without any effects from pesticide residues. So, whether you buy conventionally grown or organically grown strawberries, just focus on eating more fruits and vegetables.
Full Strawberry Video From FreshAirFarmer Andrew Campbell’s Dinner Starts Here Series