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Strawberry business booms after slow start

COVID safety measures tricky but didn’t dampen demand

Strawberries were the new toilet paper this summer, says one grower. As in — people snapped them up so fast they were hard to come by.

“Huge demand, not enough supply,” said Angie Cormier, who farms with husband Darren near La Salle. “Everyone has just seen an increase in customer flow.”

The uptick in strawberry demand led a fellow grower to compare it to the recent run on toilet paper, said Cormier.

At Boonstra Farms, near Stonewall, one Facebook user posted a picture of a lineup of over 20 cars waiting to enter the farm at 8:25 in the morning on July 16. Another person chimed in that the wait was even longer when she arrived.

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Cormier said they had people line up at 6:30 in the morning one day. They opened to pick at eight.

She suspected people were just looking for something to do, and strawberry picking is an outdoor, family-friendly activity.

Earlier this year it wasn’t clear if U-pick berry farms would be able to open. Cormier, who is an executive director of the Prairie Fruit Growers Association, said March and April were busy as PFGA worked with its growers and the province to put together a plan and regulations.

The organization developed a standard set of safety regulations for U-picks. These regulations included not allowing fruit to be eaten in the field, and requiring handwashing before and after picking.

Cormier said for the most part people respected the rules.

Sourcing handwashing stations proved hard, said Cormier. They began searching for them in March and weren’t able to buy them. Cormier’s father designed and built stations for the farm — complete with a sink made from a large plastic funnel, and a foot pump that brought water from a large plastic garbage can through a spout.

PFGA set up an online appointment system so, if growers chose, they could have customers book picking times as a way to control the flow of customers and maintain distance between people.

Cormier said they used a combination of appointment and walk-up.

“You can’t please everybody is what we found,” she said. “Some people didn’t like waiting in line. Some people didn’t like the appointment system because we booked up really quickly. So I think we did the best that we could with the situation that we were dealt.”

As well as limiting customers in, to spread people out the farm opened all sections of the strawberry fields at once (they would usually open one section at a time). Cormier said this required having 10 more staff than usual on picking days.

Not all farms had a banner year. Friedensfeld Honey and Berry farm, near Steinbach, saw its berry crop completely wiped out by hail.

“Half of it looked like someone drove over it with a lawn mower,” co-owner Andy Loewen told local paper The Carillon.

Last year’s wet fall followed by a cool spring delayed strawberry growth, said Cormier. Windy weather also affected strawberry size, she added.

Poor plant establishment last year and a windy spring led to a small crop, Grunthal Berries reported on its site.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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