“If you stop looking forward, it’s going to catch you,” explained Rick Verbruggen of the decision to add 30,000 plants of ’table top’ strawberries to their existing six acres of field operation.
With a smile, he describes the transition into berries as ‘accidental’, ongoing expansion on a forward-thinking pivot from his and Norfolk County’s long-standing tobacco-farming tradition.
With their kids in high school at the time, he and wife Nellie planted a half-acre of strawberries on two ‘odd pieces of ground’ in 2003 with the idea of generating some income through an avenue that didn’t dominate their children’s lives, allowing them to for example, enjoy ‘Thursday nights in the pubs.’ “They have to have some fun,” Rick explained.
Their first harvest in 2004 was challenging he recalls, not so much from a production point of view as marketing and sales.
“Nobody knows you’re there.”
The business continued to grow however, through what he describes as ‘a little bit of luck’ and having ‘good people around you,’ the latter definition including family, labour and technical support.
Rick and Nellie Verbruggen have diversified within diversification, adding European-style table top strawberry production to their existing Potters Road Berries operation.
“Once you have good quality, sweet berries, the people will come.”
Their business model evolved into both pick-your-own and already-picked options, from a total of six acres of field strawberries and an additional acre-and-a-half of field raspberries.
Both are intense, condensed three-week harvest seasons, strawberries beginning around June 6 to the tenth, raspberries ripening close on their heels, opening around the first week of July.
“The strawberries finish and the raspberries start,” says Nellie.
The addition of a cooler has extended their season year-round with fresh-frozen capability, berries resultantly sourced by bakeries, wineries and for smoothies and preserves.
“I made jam yesterday,” Nellie smiled.
Picking your own fresh berries is a popular option for many reasons. There is the virtually indescribable flavour of fresh-picked ripe berries, doing a little work yourself is cheaper than effectively paying someone else to pick them for you, and also because the exercise represents a positive outing or annual tradition for many, a trend encouraged and expanded by COVID-19 restrictions.
“Families wanted to get out and do something,” said Nellie, noticing a definite COVID ‘bump.’
Potters Road Berries is also heading into its fourth season of table top production. In general terms, Rick describes a ‘European system’ with potted plants started in a greenhouse to push berries earlier in the season, moved into raised racks sheltered under climate-enhancing half-hoops.
“It’s like an umbrella,” he explains.
In seeking a comparison between field and ‘table top’ berries, the Verbruggens have 6,000 boxes of the latter, with five plants per box, or 30,000 in total. Field strawberries typically have a plant density of between 7,500 and 8,500 plants per acre, depending on variety and individual farmer preference.
“Some like them to breathe a little more, some will squeeze them tighter,” says Rick.
But to simply compare 30,000 table top plants to four acres at 7,500 plants per acre doesn’t take into account the vastly different harvest seasons, three weeks for field berries, roughly from the end of May through to October or even early November for the table top approach.
“It all depends on Mother Nature,” says Rick.
Table top production requires less space, more infrastructure and also offers labour savings in terms of convenience for plant care through growth and harvest.
“The biggest thing is spreading out the workload,” says Nellie, longer, consistent production compared to the frenetic three-week pace of field seasons. The Verbruggens employ a total of eight migrant workers from Jamaica to assist in the operation, two earlier in the spring for planting, an additional six as the season progresses. They also hire several local employees during the heightened demands of the field strawberry season.
In retrospect, Potters Road Berries has taken the Verbruggen family in a far different direction than the tobacco Rick grew up with, or anyone could have predicted.
“If you’d said this was the way it was going to turn out 25 or 30 years ago, people would have looked at you and said ‘You’re off your gourd,’” he laughed.
But from a comparatively small, experimental start, their initial diversification continues to diversify in a positive direction.
Nellie was initially slightly nervous about the need to deal with the public, and admittedly has learned to accept some criticism - warranted or otherwise - and carry on undeterred. But in general, ‘people are very good’ she says, and the pride of producing a good crop is more than reflected in their appreciation.
“Seeing the smiles on their faces is always enjoyable,” she concluded.