'Devastating year' hits Manitoba berry farms and U-pick industry

Demand for U-pick berries is up this summer but many Manitoba farms don’t have the yield to meet the demand as the industry is hit hard by the weather.

2 years of bad weather conditions leave berry growers feeling the pinch

Colleen and Mark Edmunds show off their berries in their farm's strawberry patch in 2015. After growing berries for more than a decade at Grunthal Berries, they have decided 2021 will be their last season. (Submitted by Colleen Edmunds)

Demand for U-pick berries is up this summer but many Manitoba farms don't have the yield to meet the demand as the industry is hit hard by the weather. 

The current drought has some farms cancelling strawberry picking appointments to give them time to irrigate their fields and slow down ripening, while others were unable to open for picking due to winterkill. Some are leaving the industry altogether.

Colleen and Mark Edmunds started Grunthal Berries in 2009, growing U-pick berries on their two-hectare farm roughly 65 kilometres south of Winnipeg. After several years of bad crops, this will be their last season. 

"It was getting really stressful," said Colleen Edmunds.

With a source of retirement income, the two were already considering retiring this year, but the recent season was a clincher.

"We thought, why are we working so hard and not getting paid for it?" 

Edmunds estimates that this year, Grunthal Berries is only operating at one per cent of its normal production, while in 2020, they operated at 20 per cent. 

"It's disappointing, because you do work hard," Edmunds said. "It's not like I'm just winging it. I've made informed decisions." 

It's frustrating that there are people who don't believe in climate change when farmers face the effects regularly, Edmunds said.

Strawberries are perennial, meaning the previous winter and fall affect the plants' productivity, and Edmunds said the issue is not the current drought — they can irrigate to deal with the drought — but the irregular warming and cooling cycles that result in winterkill.  

Edmunds wants better climate change policies.

This is what a strawberry patch at Grunthal Berries looks like this week. Farm owner Colleen Edmunds says they are operating at one per cent of the farm's normal production. (Submitted by Colleen Edmunds)

Angie Cormier, executive director of the Prairie Fruit Growers Association, said it has been a devastating year for some fruit farms in Manitoba. 

"Almost every grower that would be a member of ours, for sure, has probably experienced a loss of some sort," said Cormier, but because it is still the middle of the harvest, she doesn't have exact numbers yet. 

Last year's drought, the low snow cover over the winter, frost at the end of May and the current drought have made the last two years difficult, said Cormier, who has been farming for 16 years and owns Cormier's Berry Patch in La Salle, Man., with her husband. 

For her farm, the last two years have definitely been the driest and the hottest. 

Manitoba has definitely been outside normal conditions in the last few years and that's making things difficult for farmers, said Anthony Mintenko, a fruit crop specialist for Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development for 20 years.

"It just seems that we've been seeing more extreme events," he said.

Mintenko helps advise farmers on how to improve their fruit crops.

"You need a lot of skill to grow horticulture crops," Mintenko said. "Having extreme weather events is just another variable that the growers have to deal with." 

Ken Lucko, who owns Monominto Berry Farm 50 km east of Winnipeg, credits Mintenko with helping to save his strawberry crop after it was hit hard by the severe frost near the end of May.

"We thought we had lost the whole crop," Lucko said. 

The plants weren't developed enough to be totally killed and with Mintenko's advice, they were able to save them and have a very good season, he said. They haven't had to limit the number of baskets people can pick. 

The majority of the farms that the Prairie Fruit Growers Association represents are in southern Manitoba and were hit hard by the frost, Cormier said, but effects on crops were not uniform, even for farms within 10 miles of each other. 

Welland Family Farm in Garland, Man., limited the number of baskets people could pick after producing only one-third of their expected yield. They had to cancel all their picking appointments on Sunday in order to irrigate their fields in the extreme heat. 

Owner Heather Welland said the year has been hard but they're grateful for the berries they got and are staying optimistic.

"We can only do so much and Mother Nature does the rest."


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