California strawberries crowding out Canadian crop

June is the beginning of strawberry season for most Canadians, but despite local harvests across the country, there has been an influx of imported berries that are sold at a discount in major supermarkets.

Discounted, imported berries difficult for local growers to compete with

Discounted strawberries from California hit produce shelves as Canadian berries are ready to be sold. (Sharon Mollerus via Photopin)

June is the beginning of strawberry season in Canada. But despite local harvests across the country, imported berries are being sold at a discount in major supermarkets.

Derek Scott, whose family has been farming strawberries on Vancouver Island since before the Second World War, says he loses customers to discount berries imported from California every year.

"I don't think it's right," he said. "I don't think that they should be allowed to ship strawberries. If we were to dump strawberries … in the States, they'd shut us off at the border quicker than you can say 'jack flack.'"

Locally grown fruit tends to be juicier, sweeter, and red right to the centre. But thanks to a heritage variety of strawberry called the Royal Sovereign, California's exports now dominate the market.

That variety was widely grown through the 1940s to '60s but fell out of favour due to pest problems.

The loss of that particular berry, coupled with growing demand for hardier strawberries that could stand up to transport, spurred on the effort to breed new varieties.

"The California berries are a totally different berry from what we grow here," Scott explained.

"They're meant to ship. They have no flavour, no sugar in them. It's the sugar in the strawberry that makes them break down. The ones they ship will last for a month."

According to the California Strawberry Commission, Canada is the state's largest export market. In the U.S. itself, 80 per cent of the nation's strawberries originate in California.

Chalk it up to efficient growing conditions, cheaper labour and the ongoing use of a fungicide called methyl bromide, which is not allowed in Canada.

Scott said all those factors lead to an unfair advantage and help explain why, at the height of the strawberry season for Canadian farmers, supermarkets are selling heavily discounted fruit from the United States.

"It's always been a one-way street between the United States farmers," he said.

"They get free water; we gotta pay for our water. They get free hydro in some states; we gotta pay for our hydro. I think our government should stop those strawberries from coming across the border."