Oct 13, 2016Strawberry production systems thrive in Quebec
Île d’Orléans is known as the “Garden of Quebec,” in part because of the varied selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. People from Quebec City go there to pick their own fruit. Just about all the vegetables eaten in Quebec City are grown on the island. The locals sell their produce not only on the island itself, but in the markets and restaurants in Quebec City, as well as in Montreal, Toronto and other coastal locations.
The farms visited displayed a myriad of research projects, including optimization of out-of-soil day-neutral strawberry production systems, technical adaptation trials of high-yielding long cane raspberry production and winter-hardy blackberry variety trials in out-of-soil production.
Onesime Pouliot Farm featured extensive plots of out-of-soil strawberry and raspberry production. The out-of-soil concept has taken hold in an area where soil conditions are not good following decades of potato production impacting in-ground soil health. Peat production techniques include suspending plants in troughs and pots, including strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Guy Pouliot works with his brother Daniel in a seventh-generation business that employs more than 150 people during the growing season. From June to October, the farm produces berries and other produce.
The owners combine technology and innovation with a focus on research. Two people are dedicated full time to conducting research trials on the farm.
The operation is the exclusive commercial grower of sweet potatoes on the island.
Raspberries under “umbrella” production accompany plots of high tunnel raspberries. Strawberries in a table top nursery setting also were shown to NASGA participants.
“Our main production is strawberries,” said Guy Pouliot, co-owner since 2001. “My father was growing 135 acres, mainly day-neutral, with 50 (acres) bare roots, 17 (acres) plugs and producing neutral for us in the second year, second leaf, ready for the first production.”
In 2003, the Pouliot brothers started doing their own research, and since 2010 two full-time researchers with master’s degrees have been on staff.
“We’re probably among the farms in Canada doing more research – private research or in collaboration with the government of Quebec – than any other organizations,” Pouliot said.
The farm has been using Mexican workers for 30 years and has used an access system since 2003.
“This program gave us stability,” Pouliot said. “Without Mexican workers, we’re not talking about research, or sweet potato (harvest in October). Students go back to school and we still have day-neutral strawberries at the end of October. Mexican workers are a pretty good solution. They get a lot of hours. The money they take back to Mexico after six months, it would take them over three years to earn in Mexico.”
As part of a local grower cooperative with more than 300 acres of strawberries in production, the arrangement helps in negotiations with some of Canada’s largest grocery chains.
“Together, I think it would be biggest grower in Canada,” he said.
Pouliot said the province of Quebec produces 51 percent of Canada’s strawberries, with Île d’Orléans growers representing 20 to 30 percent of Quebec’s harvest.
“It’s a nice concentration of strawberries,” he said.
The farm started producing its own plugs in 2005, and as it got better neighboring farms sought to purchase stock.
“Two years ago we started a separate company dedicated to plug plants,” he said. “In the future, we will be able to sell long cane raspberries.”
He said day-neutral strawberries are a bit more stable than short-day production.
A major research focus for the farm is to assemble a seasonal program prediction model to be able to better fill gaps in the production cycle. The goal is to produce 400 grams per plant in a five- to six-week period.
Seascape remains the variety of choice.
“It’s the first one, getting a nice production early. Sales are good in August. We need Seascape or something like it that can give us strawberries in August,” he said.
The stars of the tour were the under-umbrella strawberry trials that were pursued after high tunnel efforts created unworkable high temperatures for the berries.
Since 2009, researchers have focused on methods to grow strawberries without soil due to soilborne disease concerns. They sought to determine the benefits of under-cover production to ward off soil concerns and to provide shelter from rain that can lead to botrytis, powdery mildew and other issues.
The umbrella approach included precision irrigation and fertigation management techniques in order to help manage production flow to fill gaps in the seasonal cycle.
A closer look is needed on plant types in order to meet the prime market windows from mid-July to mid-August – all while remaining economically feasible. That means production numbers that outperform field-produced berries.
The research also will focus on varieties other than Albion and Seascape, which have thus far been the most productive.
Soilless high-tunnel production of raspberries, something that has been successful in Europe but was previously unheard of in Quebec, also is desired in order to avoid wind and rain damage while enhancing yield, Pouliot said.
At Ferme Francois Gosselin Farm, owner Louis Gosselin works with wife Sylvie, son Gabriel and daughter-in-law Marie-Helene. Gabriel represents the seventh generation on the farm.
Louis said he bought the farm from his father in 1987, growing primarily potatoes and strawberries for three to four weeks per year. Now the farm grows only strawberries.
The business specializes in growing summer and fall strawberries with plastic mulch as well as tunnels. During the season, more than 120 people work on the farm. They come from Mexico in early April and stay until the middle of November.
From the beginning of June to mid-October, Ferme Francois Gosselin sells most of its production to wholesalers and retailers. A farm stand and the farmers’ market in downtown Quebec City complete the selling strategy.
For the last 30 years, the farm has been actively involved in strawberry research, development and promotion.
The farm grows Seascape exclusively “because we haven’t found any other day-neutral that works well here for fall production,” Gosselin said.
“For the start of season we use June berries – mainly Jewel and Stella – and a new variety we’ve used for the past two years is Malwina. It’s a new, very late cultivar for us – probably a bit too late – but it arrives in our gap the end of July and first days of August.”
Ferme Francois Gosselin is part of a four-grower cooperative that has more than 400 acres of strawberries in production.
For plug production, the farm uses Clery and Seascape.
“When we use a day neutral for spring production we have about half of the yield in the spring and half in the fall,” Gosselin said. “For day neutral we try to plant as early as we can.”
— Gary Pullano, associate editor