Mutant strawberry virus strikes again

A mutant strawberry virus that claimed as much as 70 per cent of a Debert, N.S. operation's yield earlier this year has struck again.

Valley farm destroys 60 per cent of plants trying to stem spread of aphid-borne mutant virus

A mutant strawberry virus that claimed as much as 70 per cent of a Debert, N.S. operation’s yield earlier this year has struck again.

Chris Webster, who runs Webster Farms in Cambridge, N.S., said he has tilled 60 per cent of his strawberry plants in an effort to salvage this year’s harvest.

Nova Scotia’s strawberry industry is worth an estimated $17 million per year.

"We’ve been in the strawberry business for over 60 years and never ran into this issue before. There’s absolutely no history of it here that we are aware of," he said.

The culprit responsible for the damage is an insect-borne plant illness.

The new virus — the result of two known viruses combining into a new, mutated form — are spread by the strawberry aphid. The strawberry aphid is a small, soft-bodied insect that siphons plant sap.

The virus weakens plants to the point where the berries themselves are undesirably small, or the plant fails to produce berries altogether.

"There’s been strawberry viruses around for years that have never been an issue. But the issue here is that two of these viruses have come together and typically there’s only been one virus present. The plants will tolerate one virus but once a second virus is introduced to them, it just shuts them down," said Webster.

Webster said the decision to destroy the majority of his crop was not an easy one, but he feels it was a necessary decision.

"We didn’t think we really had much choice. We were seeing a lot of uneven growth in our plants this spring," he said.

Webster said provincial agriculture officials, as well as farm organizations and plant producers are working with farmers on the problem.

"I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of it … not after the farms up in Great Village being totally 100 per cent infected and us finding the majority of our crop is infected — I don't see any way there isn’t more of it," said Webster.

He said the key is finding a way to manage the aphid that is spreading the virus.

"It has the potential to be a very serious problem if we can’t keep it in check. It’s going to come down to aphid management. The only way it can spread, the only vector we know of that can spread it at this point is the strawberry aphid. If we can find ways to manage the aphids, then we can control the problem but we don't know yet that that’s going to happen," said Webster.

Nova Scotia’s strawberry industry is worth an estimated $17 million per year.