06/04/2012 02:43 EDT | Updated 08/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Berried treasure: Canadians eagerly anticipate fresh local strawberries

TORONTO - Consumers who eagerly await juicy red strawberries don't have much longer to wait for the bulk of the June crop, say spokespeople for growers in Quebec and Ontario, Canada's largest producers of the berried treasure.

A small volume of fresh local strawberries have already been on the market for a couple of weeks thanks to warm temperatures earlier this spring, Kevin Schooley, executive director of the Ontario Berry Growers Association, said in an interview from Kemptville, Ont.

"We're definitely early this year," he said, though he doesn't anticipate a bumper crop.

Growers in Quebec and Ontario, which are the largest producers of strawberries in Canada, found there wasn't much winter damage because of moderate weather and the crop started early in some areas with a warm spell in March. But then came a cold snap at the end of April.

"The crop looks very good, (but) we were concerned," said Schooley. "We knew we had a little bit of damage to some of the earlier varieties from the frost, but strawberries are kind of funny. They have an ability to compensate. So the blossoms that are left often will size up and produce bigger fruit than maybe they would have because there's fewer of them.

"If we would have been further advanced there might have been more damage" such as that experienced by tender fruit and apple growers in a large part of southern Ontario who were affected by early warm weather in March, followed by sudden flash freezes, industry insiders said early last month.

In most parts of Ontario the strawberries were at a stage where the flower buds were still down in the crown of the plant.

"As they start to put out new leaves in the spring they push out these flower buds from the crown of the plant. So at the end of April when it was very, very cold for a three-day stretch a lot of those flower parts weren't exposed," Schooley explained. "They were still tucked into the crown so that protects them. They're not as vulnerable at that early stage and that was kind of a blessing for us that we weren't as advanced as the other crops."

Caroline Thibault, executive director of the Quebec Strawberry and Raspberry Growers' Association, said that growers in that province's south who were anticipating an earlier season than usual are finding the crop is more like a regular season.

Quebec produces nearly 50 per cent of the Canadian total and is the third player in North America behind California and Florida.

The Quebec association brings together more than 700 growers from the 13 agricultural regions of the province with a stronger concentration in three main areas, the Laurentians, Quebec and Montérégie, and offer products from June until October.

There are about 300 growers in Ontario, Schooley said. The country's next largest producers are British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

Because June-bearing strawberries have a shorter growing season, more farmers are planting the relatively new day neutral variety, which has a longer growing season — basically June until October depending on frost.

Quebec growers have had success adapting the day neutrals to their more extreme weather conditions, the association says.

Schooley said that there has been a learning curve among consumers when it comes to the day neutral variety because most people are used to local strawberries coming on the market in June for four to five weeks.

"It's been a bit of an education. Sometimes it's hard to convince people that they are grown locally. People are getting to know and the quality last fall was excellent.

"Some of the berries that come out in August and September are extremely sweet and nice. It's a real pleasant surprise for people. Some growers are selling to the grocery stores and some to the public so people are getting to know and demand them."

Schooley noted that production in Mexico has expanded over the past few years, especially in December and January, the biggest gap in production in California and Florida. "They're trying to capture that mid-market and they have a good climate for it, particularly in the middle latitudes."

For people who want to pick their own strawberries, provincial associations have websites with information about locations and availability.