Spread of destructive strawberry virus surprises experts
'The industry has an attitude that we'll take our lumps this year'
A horticulturalist who specializes in strawberries says he's surprised by the extent of the spread of a destructive virus that's affecting the crop across Nova Scotia.
John Lewis, with the Nova Scotia Crown corporation Perennia, said some test results are still to come. But he said there are more instances of the insect-borne plant illness than expected.
"The surprise is how much we're finding out there this year. It's really only been over the last couple of weeks that we're starting to see some symptoms of the virus and that's really our first indicator of how much is out there," he said Wednesday.
"We've still got a lot of testing to do and we're accelerating our testing over the last couple of weeks and in the coming weeks."
The new virus — the result of two known viruses combining into a new, complex 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.
"As the development advances and you start to get some heat like we've had in the last week, you'll see this yellowing and stunting symptom in the new leaves," said Lewis.
"The fruit, it won't hurt you to eat it but it's smaller than normal and it's often misshapen. Not the most marketable fruit, for sure."
In April, the pest was detected at a farm in the Great Village area outside of Debert and approximately 81 hectares of strawberry fields were plowed or had plants cut out of the ground.
Last week, Webster Farms in Cambridge said it had tilled 60 per cent of its strawberry plants in an effort to salvage this year's harvest.
Lewis said everyone in the sector is working to control the aphids that spread the virus.
"It's amazing how considerate all the growers are about that very situation. If they had the virus, they're not just showing concern about their own crop situation, a lot of the decisions to destroy a field or fields have been made because they're thinking about the guy down the road," he said.
"I've even had calls from P.E.I. and New Brunswick. There's lots of concern. The good part of that is everybody is paying attention, we're working closely with the growers on managing the critter that spreads these two viruses around."
Lewis said most farmers in the strawberry industry — worth an estimated $17 million per year in Nova Scotia — are prepared for a difficult year.
"The industry has an attitude that we'll take our lumps this year and be back on our feet, back up to full production next year," he said.
"I think that's a good attitude to have."