Strawberry farmers in Nova Scotia are expecting a much better season this year after a stubborn virus threatened the province’s $17-million per year industry.
The virus — the result of two known viruses combining into a new, complex form — is 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.
In response to the outbreak last year, farmers plowed under almost a third of Nova Scotia's productive strawberry fields that had been badly damaged.
John Lewis, a horticulturist with Kentville-based Perennia, says he thought it would take three to five years to bounce back.
But Lewis says he's pleasantly surprised.
“The fields that I’m seeing this spring is the best they’ve looked in a long time. I compare that to what I was seeing last spring — it’s just like day and night. I’m certainly optimistic and I sense the industry has renewed optimism. I’m really looking forward to having a good harvest this year,” he said.
Lewis says the number of acres in production is down by 20 per cent. However, he expects the number of berries to make it to market to be normal.
Curtis Millen farms more than 40 hectares near Great Village, N.S. Last year he had to rip up all of his strawberry plants and start over.
“We had a lot of dwarfing of the leaves and the plants wouldn't grow. In our case it wasn't worth it to even attempt to try to harvest,” he said.
The fat, red berries in Millen's fields just one year later are a happy surprise.
“Back to normal for us anyway,” he said.
The virus was long present in Nova Scotia at extremely low levels and only exploded recently along with the strawberry aphid that spreads the infection.
Last year, horticulturists urged farmers to get rid of the infected plants and replace them with ones more rigorously tested.
A new aphid monitoring program now lets farmers know when they should use insecticides.
But Millen says farmers will have to stay on top of aphids and the viruses to order the chaos of last season.
In August, the Nova Scotia government announced it would provide up to $2.3 million in loans to help farmers. Some farmers were critical of the announcement, saying that was far to little to make a difference.