Greenhouse technology could see Ontario strawberry farmers plug in for year-round production

By Lisa McLean for Farm & Food Care

strawberries(Thamesville) – Ontario strawberry farmers have a new way to grow strawberries, thanks to an innovative production method from a Southwestern Ontario nursery. The good news? If the system takes root, it could help lead to a year-round growing season for local Ontario strawberries.

Sandra Carther, owner of Thamesville-based Carther Plants began developing a new nursery system for strawberry plants in 2009. The system produces “plug plants” or plants that are grown in cell packs that are ready for transplant into the ground or a greenhouse.

Traditional strawberry nurseries produce “bare root” plants, which are grown outside. These plants are grown in the field and harvested in the fall, and then stored through the winter. Strawberry farmers in Ontario have traditionally planted dormant, frozen bare root plants each spring.

“In 2009 one of our customers, a processing vegetable farmer that had recently expanded into strawberry production, asked us to custom propagate some strawberry plug plants for him,” Carther says. “I did a little research, and then jumped in.”

Carther’s own roots run deep in the greenhouse business. Her parents were among the first in Ontario to grow plug plants in the 1980s for Ontario’s growing processing vegetable sector. Carther studied horticulture at the University of Guelph, and promptly started her own greenhouse business with her husband Scott.

“I could have set up our strawberry system the same as other strawberry nurseries, where plants are grown outside and the runner tips are harvested right from the field,” Carther says. “But, being a greenhouse grower, it made more sense to me to try them in the greenhouse where I have more control over the environment.”

Carther sees distinct advantages to growing strawberry plants in a greenhouse setting. For starters, the insect-screened facility keeps out aphids and other insects that carry viruses. And by eliminating the need for soil, she eliminates concerns for nematodes, which can sometimes travel with bare root plants. Another common crop disease – anthracnose – is typically spread by spores when rainwater splashes the spores from one plant to another. That’s not a concern for greenhouses either.

So why have farmers rarely used plug plant strawberries in the past? Carther says it comes down to money. Plug plants cost more than traditional bare root plants because of the labour and infrastructure required to grow them. It was not as economically feasible with traditional June-bearing varieties, and a short production season in Ontario. But with the development of new varieties, including day neutrals, which have an extended production season, it makes using plug transplants a viable alternative.

“In the past, strawberry nurseries, because they were set up for field production, had minimal space in a greenhouse to use for starting their nursery stock,” Carther says. “They just weren’t in the greenhouse business.”

Carther’s business is set up with approximately one acre of greenhouse space, in individual double poly hoop houses. “Our setup is perfect for segregating our crops, and different nursery stages for our strawberry production,” Carther says.

This season she is adding at least eight new strawberry varieties to the two she has been working with. In addition to Ontario, her strawberry plugs have shipped to Alberta and British Columbia, and they will soon begin shipping to the United States.

“We offer another alternative to strawberry farmers who are looking to try out new production systems,” Carther says. “With a supply of strawberry plants available at different times of the year, sizes and stages of growth, farmers have more flexibility for production.”Sandra Carther Premier's Award

“There are gaps in production, and strawberries have peaks and lows,” Carther says. “But some growers are close to modifying their timing and filling production gaps. In the very near future, we could have year-round local strawberries.”

In 2014, Carther was awarded a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. “Programs like the Premier’s Award are great because they allow farmers to showcase the unique and innovative ways they operate,” says Carther. “In almost any farm operation you will find a tool, machine or process that has been created from scratch, modified or fine-tuned to provide production efficiencies or fill a market niche. That is one of the reasons it is such an honour to be recognized by this program.”

In addition to strawberry plugs, Carther Plants also grows a wide variety of conventional and certified organic vegetable and herb plug transplants.

This article is one in a series produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario. The stories highlight innovative initiatives in the areas of animal welfare and environmental stewardship in Ontario agriculture. 

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