Manitoba’s Small Fruit Crop Itching For Warm Weather

“If we got good heat, the plants would just explode.”

– ANTHONY MINTENKO, MAFRI

Manitoba’s small fruit growers appear to have dodged the late-spring frost, but now face the prospect of a delayed picking season.

A cool, wet spring has put berry crops at least two weeks behind in their normal development. But that was an unexpected blessing when sub-zero temperatures swept across parts of Manitoba during the first weekend in June.

Most strawberry and raspberry crops avoided severe frost damage because they hadn’t started to blossom yet.

“It seems like most guys came out OK,” said Anthony Mintenko, a Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives fruit crops specialist.

Waldo Thiessen, a grower in the Altona district, estimated his strawberry and raspberry losses to frost were “maybe five per cent.”

SASKATOONS

Saskatoons could be a different story. Because they bloom earlier, both wild and domestic saskatoons may have suffered more frost damage, although actual results won’t be known for a few weeks.

Murray Boonstra, a Stonewall grower, said his neighbour has domestic saskatoons and they “look pretty bad.”

But Thiessen said some saskatoons may have escaped damage from frost because they are high bush plants and frost often affects low-lying crops first.

Growers say it was a good thing that berries were late in developing when the frost hit June 6. In a normal year, plants would have been in full bloom and the damage would have been serious.

“It would have taken half the crop,” Thiessen said.

Now that most berry crops appear to have avoided severe frost damage, their next challenge is to ripen for picking.

Boonstra said his berry picking normally starts around June 25. Peak picking occurs during the first two weeks of July. That won’t happen this year because the fruit is slow to develop in cool weather. Boonstra expects to begin picking around July 10 at the earliest.

Last year was also a late one for Manitoba’s berry growers. Cool weather during the spring of 2008 delayed picking until the first week in July. But the crop was generally good because it had lots of time to develop into large, lush berries.

SLOW DEVELOPMENT

Unfortunately, the slow development also delayed picking for two weeks. Boonstra said U-pickers generally stop coming around August. As a result, he was unable to sell all his 2008 crop and had to mow down about a quarter of it for lack of buyers.

Boonstra hopes the same thing doesn’t happen this year and he encourages pickers to be patient.

“Just wait for those Manitoba berries because they’ll be coming.”

Fortunately, a change in the weather would speed up development dramatically, said Mintenko. “If we got good heat, the plants would just explode.”

But Mintenko doesn’t want a sudden heat wave because excessive warmth could scald sensitive berries in their late stages of development.

Manitoba’s small fruit growers harvested close to $8 million worth of crop from just under 2,000 acres in 2006, according to MAFRI. More recent figures are unavailable.

Thiessen, who is also executive director of the Prairie Fruit Growers Association, said the

LAURA RANCE

industry is growing slowly but steadily.

ROOM TO GROW

Many U-pick operations tend to be within driving distance of Winnipeg and other large centres. But Thiessen said there’s room for expansion in western Manitoba, although irrigation is essential because the region tends to be dry.

Nearly all small fruit grown in Manitoba is either U-picked or sold at farmers’ markets. Some processing is done by local cottage industries and at the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie.

Ironically, little Manitobagrown fruit ends up in local stores. That’s partly because its shelf life is too short for large grocery chains, said Thiessen. Also, supermarkets such as Safeway demand large volumes and assured supplies for more than a few weeks, which is how long the fruit season in Manitoba lasts. [email protected]

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