Organic field-grown Ontario strawberries are just hitting production.
In New Hamburg, Ontario, Pfennings Organic Farms is in the first year of commercial production for its new two-acre strawberry program. "We put these in the ground last year, and due to the lack of supply of organic varieties, we got non-organic untreated bare root plants which take a year after planting to be certifiable organic," says Tristan Pfenning, a third-generation Pfenning family farmer.
The berries are planted in raised beds in the field, though supply chain issues challenged the installation. "When I made the raised beds last year, the row cover and the drip tape were back ordered for about a month after we got the plants. So we had to make the beds and plant them immediately rather than making the beds and having the row cover kill the weeds underneath. That resulted in high weed pressure this year," says Pfenning.
Tristan Pfenning is a third-generation Pfenning family farmer with Pfennings Organic Farms.
Slightly later start
He notes that earlier in the spring, he'd anticipated the crop to come on sooner than it has. "Then we had the last freeze of minus 10 degrees Celsius overnight for a few days. That caused a bit of damage to the flowers," he says, noting the berries are now coming on a week later than expected. "The bulk of our volume will be over the next few weeks." However, Pfenning's also has some day-neutral varieties that will continue to bear fruit as the days get shorter again.
Pfenning's also ships the strawberries in sustainable cardboard packaging rather than typical PET plastic clamshells commonly used for berries. The printed box with ventilation holes holds one lb. of strawberries.
The printed cardboard box with ventilation holes holds one lb. of organic strawberries.
Ontario strawberry programs shifting
While this is the first year of the program, Pfenning hopes to potentially grow it to 10 acres over the next few years, depending on how the season goes. And this comes at a time when the Ontario strawberry industry seems to be evolving. "I see fields shifting from smaller patches being grown in-ground in Ontario to larger acreage in greenhouses. That's where the industry is going," he says that while he is interested in that model, a significant capital investment is required. "So growing on raised beds is a compromise because it gets them a little higher than the ground, which is better for their roots because they're sensitive to excess moisture."
As for demand, Pfenning believes it will be good for the strawberries. Last year Pfenning's ran a pilot project where it assembled and packaged field strawberries under the Pfennings name from local, largely Amish growers in Southern Ontario to help build up marketing for this program.
And on pricing, the strawberries will likely follow market pricing, which can fluctuate throughout the season. "Ontario strawberries are at peak pricing right now, given field production hasn't come on at all," he says, noting pricing will include a small premium for the sustainable packaging.