Cooking School

Silence of the strawberries: Canadian berry farms under threat

By: Signe Langford

Author: Canadian Living Credits:

Cooking School

Silence of the strawberries: Canadian berry farms under threat

By: Signe Langford
Just as vibrant green fiddleheads and asparagus say spring has sprung, nothing says summer like sweet, soft, local strawberries. A family trip to a pick-your-own farm - where strawberry-stained mouths tuck away as many as go in the basket - is as much a celebration of summer as decking the halls for the holidays.

Strawberry sins
We’ve all heard it by now: The average meal travels 1500 miles from producer to plate according to Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, co-authors of the 100-Mile Diet, a Year of Local Eating (Random House Canada, 2007).

Here’s something else we’ve all heard, the alarming crunch of a California strawberry in January! They’re oversized, white-on-the-inside, flavourless, hard, and trucked in on a wave of fossil fuels. Now that’s hard to swallow.

Canadian strawberries under threat

Canada is home to some of the best berry-growing conditions on earth, not to mention our farmers are tops for environmental responsibility. But how are local Canadian strawberry growers doing these days anyway?

Not too good. Coupled with a short growing season - lasting roughly one month - the farmer has only a small window of a couple of days to harvest the ripe fruit and get it to market before the delicate strawberry flesh turns to mush.

On the other hand, California’s climate allows for year ‘round growing, and it’s not just the berries that are growing.

Every year, the California strawberry industry expands too. It now produces about 1 billion kilograms of berries per year. According to Kevin Schooley of the Ontario Berry Growers Association, the average strawberry patch in Southern Ontario is four hectares, while in California they can span up to 20.

And they out-yield us too: 34,000 kilos to 2,000 kilos per hectare. It’s a David and Goliath story to be sure. But like David and his slingshot, consumers can pack a powerful wallop. Local produce is the best.  Seek it out, demand it, and savour it.

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Top Canadian chefs and Ontario's Minister taking strawberries seriously
Recently, Leona Dombrowsky, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, announced “When everybody picks Ontario, everybody wins.” And she explained with a cheeky grin, that she’s putting Ontario's money where her mouth is, by investing $56 million into small farms, farmers markets, Savour Ontario, and the Ministry of Tourism’s campaign to promote culinary tourism in Ontario.

Additionally, local Toronto chefs at top-drawer restaurants are creating menus that showcase the iconic berry of summer, and give a much-deserved nod to the growers by listing the strawberries' pedigree on the menus. (Yes, there is more than one kind of strawberry!)

Take a queue from those who know food and support Canadian strawberries this summer. Buy more berries than you need and freeze a few bags for later on. Frozen berries are perfect for smoothies year-round, plus they can be defrosted for salsas, sauces or desserts later on.

Visit farmers markets, take that trip to the farm, learn to eat with the seasons, and tell your grocery manager and restaurateur that you want to see local produce - wherever you are across this country - on the shelves and on the menu.

Inspiring sweet-savoury strawberry recipes and ideas
Everyone loves a good dollop of strawberry jam, but you don't have to have a sweet tooth to enjoy all things strawberry. Creative chefs across Canada are toying with strawberries as enhancers to savoury dishes such as bruschetta, pork tenderloin - even as a hamburger topping. Here are a few savoury recipes by The Canadian Living Test Kitchen:

And don't miss these strawberry sweeties:

Some useful foodie resources  (click on “Resources” drop-down to “Farmers Markets” for a cross-Canada directory.) (Lists farmers markets in the US and Canada)
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Cooking School

Silence of the strawberries: Canadian berry farms under threat