06/03/2013 04:55 EDT | Updated 08/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Berried treasure: Strawberry producers use techniques to jump-start growth

TORONTO - Consumers are reaping the benefits of improved production techniques and new varieties when it comes to the strawberry crop and are already enjoying early berries.

June has traditionally been the month for the ruby-red fruit, but now the season can start in May and extend into September or October.

"It's been a turnaround weather-wise from last year," Kevin Schooley, executive director of the Ontario Berry Growers Association, said from Kemptville, Ont.

Growers associations in both provinces say the crop is on schedule and producers likely won't experience the losses of last year when warm temperatures in March brought out early blossoms. Heavy frost at the end of April 2012 caused a significant amount of damage to some early fruiting varieties.

"We've had some frost events (this spring), but nothing as dramatic or as cold as those," said Schooley.

"We're probably closer to more of a normal harvest window than we were last year. Last year we were a few weeks ahead of time and that created its challenges. This spring has been a little cooler and we've had a few frost events that have challenged growers to stay up all night and use different methods of frost protection."

Jacob Hamel-Jolette of the Quebec Strawberry and Raspberry Growers Association said there has been a small harvest so far and the volume is coming. Quebec, with about 600 growers, is the largest producer of strawberries in Canada, and third in North America behind California and Florida.

"They were planning to start harvest at the beginning of June and in the following days, mostly in the Montreal region, while other regions will likely be mid-June," Hamel-Jolette said from Longueuil, Que. The peak of the season in Quebec starts between St. Jean Baptiste Day (June 24) and July 1.

In Ontario, second in production to Quebec in Canada, they're picking moderate amounts in the Niagara area and southwest, with more expected there and moving east in the coming weeks.

For people who want to pick their own, Schooley said prospects should be better starting around June 10 in the Niagara area while growers in the Toronto area and eastern Ontario will likely be able to accommodate pickers beginning around June 17.

In British Columbia, the Fraser Valley Strawberry Growers Association website says some growers were picking in mid-May, and all will be harvesting in mid-June.

Consumers are still not used to seeing local-grown strawberries for sale throughout the summer and into fall. Quebec and Ontario have devised a logo for packaging to alert consumers that berries have been grown locally.

"It's still a learning process for a lot of consumers to realize that we've had strawberries probably as early as the middle of May till the end of October in Ontario," Schooley said. "We have our traditional season in June when the bulk of strawberries are produced still in June. Then we have the day-neutrals that kind of fill in all those extra months."

Unlike traditional June-fruiting and ever-bearing varieties, day-neutral strawberries produce a fall crop the year of planting and then flower and fruit continuously, starting earlier in the season and finishing in September or October.

Farmers are also using different techniques to get a jump on the season.

"Some growers used to have 20 varieties and only one system of production and now they have more systems of production and fewer varieties," said Hamel-Jolette. "With the different systems it allows you to get in a bit earlier in the season and have strawberries earlier and later. You can have a better production than with the older production techniques."

Hamel-Jolette said some farmers use plastic mulch. The crops grow in soil through slits cut in thin plastic sheeting that is unrolled over top. The plastic warms the soil faster and suppresses weeds. An irrigation system and fertilizer can be placed underneath.

Tunnels, which resemble a greenhouse structure with a single layer of plastic and no heat, are also in use, while some growers pull a spun-bound fabric cover like a huge blanket over the plants.

"It creates a greenhouse effect. It allows a certain amount of light in and with that light it warms up the plant," Schooley said. "You're doing two things. You're providing a little bit of frost protection with the blanket, but you're also trapping warm air so that warm air is keeping things from freezing underneath as well."

Farmers can gain 10 days to two weeks on the season. Being earlier than someone else could mean a premium price at the market.

Farmers keep an eagle eye on the weather. Around Victoria Day, some growers in northern Ontario combated frost for several nights with sprinkler irrigation.

"They'll actually form ice on the blossoms, which is what they're typically trying to protect at this time of year," Schooley said. "There will actually be ice formation and that formation of ice releases heat which keeps the sensitive parts of the strawberry plant like the flowers safe from frost."

Call ahead or check online for availability before visiting growers: