Strawberries thriving in Ottawa-area despite conditions that stifled other plants

Ottawa-area strawberry growers are enjoying the fruits of a good harvest this year, after a wet spring set other crops back.

Farmer says it's been 9 years since he's seen a 'normal' growing season, so crop diversity is key

Paul Vandenberg from Rideau Pines Farm in south Ottawa shows off some of the strawberries that haven't been picked yet. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Ottawa-area strawberry growers are enjoying the fruits of a good harvest this year, after a wet spring set other crops back.

Around 325 millimetres of rain fell at the Ottawa International Airport in April and May, according to Environment Canada, delaying the planting season for crops such as corn and soybeans for weeks.

Local strawberry farmers said they're starting their traditional harvesting season right on time, despite all the rain, and the results are looking sweet.

"So far the crop looks pretty good," said Jacques Duquette, who's been farming east of Ottawa in Clarence Creek for more than 20 years.

"The reason the crop is nice is last summer we had a very, very nice summer. The strawberry plant prepares its fruit the year before. So by the end of August and September last year, we had really nice and hot weather."

Some of the strawberries from Rideau Pines Farm in Ottawa. Growers across the region say the weather over the last several months has set them up for a good season, unlike other kinds of crops. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Matt Vandenberg of Rideau Pines Farm in rural south Ottawa said the recent conditions have helped too, hovering around the ideal temperature of 25 C

"There's a lot of flavour, there's not a lot of stress from a lack of rain, we've been getting about [3 cm] of rain a week which is what plants need to thrive, we've been getting the right temperatures," he said.

"I call them the sexy berries when they're that sweet."

Fungicide and drainage

Duquette said it took some work to keep the rain from taking a toll on his plants, estimating he used double the amount of fungicide than on a normal year, an extra cost of about $5,000.

"When in full bloom, if you don't put the fungicide on it will attack your flowers and you'll have a poor crop," he said.

"If you don't put any fungicide at this time of year your fruit will be rotting."

Vandenberg said their berries were able to survive because of all the work they put into their drainage system, since a strawberry plant can be killed if it sits in standing water for a little as 12 hours.

Diversity helps 

Both these farms grow other crops, some of which haven't fared so well with this year's rain or last year's very dry summer.

Matt's brother Paul Vandenberg said that's why it's important to be adaptable and have a wide range of crops that can withstand a wide range of conditions.

He added one of the ways they're adapting is by building "tunnel houses", which act like temporary greenhouses and let them manage conditions as a safety measure when the weather is bad and extend the season of some crops.

Paul Vandenberg gestures to some of Rideau Pines Farm's tunnel houses, which offer a bit of climate control from bad weather and help extend the growing season for some crops. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Duquette said he has little margin for error with his pumpkin crops, which went in later than usual because of the rain and may now be susceptible to an early frost in September that could stop them from ripening.

He said he also lost half his raspberry bushes to this past winter's freezing rain, another season of weird weather that's almost becoming the new norm.

"The weather's changed. I've been doing this 23 years and the last five or six years the weather we have in the spring is very unpredictable," he said.

"[It's been] at least 9 years ago we had what I'd call a normal spring and normal summer."