An Interview With Berry Growers Of Ontario’s General Manager
The official inauguration of summer for many is when one can be found bent between the straw in a u-pick patch on a sunny day collecting the freshest and most delicious produce June soil has to offer. The jams, strawberry shortcakes and berries over ice cream that follow continue the revelry of summer’s inception for Ontarians. The organisation that works to promote such experiences as well as advocate for growers is the Berry Growers of Ontario. In exchange for acreage fees from berry farmers, the Berry Growers of Ontario help to coordinate research, provide promotion for the industry, and also offers advocacy with the government. In addition, they provide a great deal of education for their members, with a bi-monthly newsletter, regular emails, on-farm twilight meetings, and their own AGM and conference which precedes the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention.
The promotion provided by the Berry Growers of Ontario is through social media and their website (ontarioberries.com), where consumers can interact with a map showing pick your own operations, special events, recipes and much more. They also partner with Foodland Ontario on a retailer display program and with the Ontario Produce Marketing Association.
Additionally, they help budding berry growers with their annual commodity school. Last year’s school was “Blueberry For Beginners”. Next year’s school will be about raspberry growing.
Norfolk Farms interviewed Bernie Solymar, General Manager of Berry Growers of Ontario who has a plethora of experience working with producers. Solymar began his career in Ontario’s agricultural industry working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and was an Apple Integrated Pest Management Specialist for more than a decade. From there, he had his own consulting business in Norfolk County for over a dozen years and also spent more than eight years as the executive director of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario and Fox Seeds. Since November of 2021, Solymar has enjoyed the new challenge of administration and management at Berry Growers of Ontario where his tasks include administration, communications, and industry relations with various levels of government, the University of Guelph and agri-business. Solymar works closely with the BGO’s other staff member, Victoria Buma, who is their Research and Program Coordinator.
When asked what he has learned to be the largest current challenges in the Ontario berry industry, Solymar said “It’s much like many other commodities. It’s the cost of labour, other input costs, the continued deregistration of certain pesticides leaving less tools in the tool kit so to speak.” Solymar stated that without an arid climate, organic berry growing is incredibly challenging and “we continue to develop new pests all the time” where Solymar gave the example of a recent aggressor, the Spotted Wing Drosiphila, a developing exotic pest that is now found in many raspberry and blueberry sites which generated a need for additional spraying, which has put extra pressure on production. He continued: “The normal farming challenges and certainly the increases we are seeing in input materials is a factor and the labour market is always an issue as well because the larger producers depend on off-shore labour.” He went on to elaborate about the mountain of paperwork that continues to increase when seeking to obtain said offshore labour. Climate change, says the GM, also accounts for more drought prone summers which translates into the need for more irrigation, as well as unpredictable frosts and heavier rains which impacts disease pressure.
Despite the challenges, room for expansion and promising research abound in the field of berry growing in Ontario. Unlike some commodities, the nice thing about berries, says Solymar, is that overproduction is not an issue, with “much more room for expansion” and many markets still waiting. For instance, there just isn’t enough grown yet to produce a large amount of frozen Ontario berries for sale, but one can hope the day is coming where this is a reality. He highlights tabletop strawberries production and the growing popularity of day-neutral strawberries (ones that continue to bear over a number of months) as encouraging advancements for the field. “Raspberries are similar,” continued Solymar, stating that tall cane raspberries come into production much quicker which increases yields significantly. Greenhouse strawberry production is also taking off, mostly in Essex County where over 200 acres of greenhouse strawberries are currently in operation pumping out 4-5 times the traditional June bearing field harvest due to the density of the plants.
The Weston Foundation, via their Homegrown Innovation Fund, has recently invested $15 million in the development of technologies that will provide Canadian berries year round to the consumer, so this will no doubt aid a boom in greenhouse production in the years to come: “We anticipate that there will be quite a bit of new technology developed that will really spur the continued growth of the greenhouse market.” comments Solymar. He says that most larger retail chains tend to carry Ontario grown greenhouse strawberries year round now, and he encourages continued diligence in watching labels in order to be supporting Ontario growers whenever possible.
Norfolk County is not to be forgotten as it still remains the largest strawberry producing area in the province. Berries do well in Norfolk’s sandy, fertile soils. Like most other crops, berries do not thrive in clay. Blueberries especially, being more specialized, require acidic soils and, if this isn’t available, growers will have an uphill and lengthy battle preparing the soil to get the pH down and keep it at the lower level. Ontario has about 190 producers farming around 2,500 acres of berries. The most recent statistics indicates that the farm gate value of these is about $40 million annually, and this doesn’t include the added value of jams, juices, chutneys, sauces, delicious wines and even some distillery goods like raspberry schnapps.
Lastly, Solymar says that he believes the most rewarding thing about berry farming lies within the pick your own operations where producers get direct contact with consumers, rendering those warm inaugural days of summer valued just as much by the producer as the consumer.