An area of Canada better known for maple syrup is being tested to mass produce berries normally grown in warmer regions, making it the unexpected beneficiary of drought, local demand and rising costs in American growing areas like California.
Driscoll’s and grower-owned Naturipe Farms LLC, two of North America’s largest fruit sellers, are both testing commercial production of berries in Ontario and Quebec, executives said.
The initiative aims to see if Canada’s most populous provinces can be cost-effective regions for the mass production of blackberries, raspberries and strawberries despite a colder climate that normally limits berries to a short summer growing season.
The typical berry growing season in Canada begins in July and can go as late into the fall as October whereas in California, strawberries, for example, are harvested anytime between January and August.
The long-term initiative is being driven by strong demand for local berries and by water scarcity and drought conditions in California and beyond. It’s also believed to be cheaper to grow and ship within Canada than to sell imported berries.
No one in traditional growing areas like California is panicking from the efforts to grow berries on a larger scale in Canada. For one, the Canadian trials are still in their early stages, making it unclear whether Canada could become a more significant player in the berry market in the coming years.
Even with a longer growing season and new varieties, it would be hard for Canada to compete with the likes of major berry-producing regions like California on volume. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, in 2019 California exported $402 million worth of strawberries and $162 million worth of raspberries and blackberries. In 2019, Canada only shipped approximately $15.56 million worth of strawberries.
The initiative highlights the long-term challenges growers face as a changing climate reshapes global agriculture, affecting everything from grains to wine. Olive oil production in Italy, for example, was once the preserve of hot and arid areas but is now produced in northern regions like Val d’Aosta which is more famous for its ski resorts.
Growing strawberries, raspberries and blackberries in central Canada is not new, though the scale and growing season targeted by Driscoll’s and Naturipe are. Instead, the country is more famous for blueberries, of which it is the world’s second-largest producer behind the United States, thanks mainly to production in British Columbia’s temperate Fraser Valley.
At Masse Nursery located southeast of Montreal, temporary workers from South America pick raspberries and blackberries to be sold under the Driscoll’s brand – one of a handful of sites in Quebec and Ontario being tested for larger production.
The nursery started growing berries for Driscoll’s in 2021 on a trial basis and expects to produce 80 to 100 tons of fruit from late June to September.
High plastic tunnels protect the berries from rainfall and generate heat to extend the growing season by a few weeks, said Sebastien Dugre, a co-owner with spouse Justine Masse.
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“Quebec is not a traditional place to grow blackberries and raspberries compared to other regions in the world,” Dugre said.
“But I do feel with the infrastructure that’s available now we can come up with a more steady way to produce on a commercial scale good tasting raspberries for a longer season.”
As costs in traditional growing regions rise, Driscoll’s believes the disparity with places like Quebec and Ontario decreases and makes local production more viable.
“My sense is that part of Canada… has a lot of potential to service not just demands in Canada but also the United States, especially the northeast United States,” said Gupta.
In California, for example, the Public Policy Institute of California estimates $1.1 billion in revenue losses and increased pumping costs due to drought.
And as growers in California spend more to protect their crops, places like Canada become more attractive.
Reuters contributed to this report