I am Martin Turcot, co-owner of Ferme aux pleines saveurs with my life partner Chantale. I grew up on a nearby farm where potatoes were a main crop. Chantale grew up on a farm on Ile d’Orléans, renowned for producing the best strawberries in Québec… but we dare to say our strawberries are even better.

Before buying the farm, I studied Finance and Economics (HEC Montréal), Agricultural Sciences (McGill) and a master’s degree in Soil Sciences (Université Laval). I became fully invested in organic agriculture after a night in the spring of 1990 spent helping one of my teachers on his organic farm – a pioneer venture at the time. When I went home that night, I knew what I would be doing for the next few decades. My main motivation for growing organically is to provide a secure environment for my family and our crew. But it is also to produce healthy fruits and vegetables for our customers.

Strawberries were an obvious choice for our “business” plan as we wanted to offer fruits in our CSA basket and we also needed a product to bring customers to our farm stand in the middle of nowhere. Those are business reason… but the main reason is that we are strawberry lovers! Our first strawberries were planted in 2003, with the first harvest in 2004. We have experimented with a lot of varieties with varied success, but our most dependable variety is Jewel. We tried early season varieties but found it heartbreaking to lose one year’s worth of work in just one morning of frost.

When people visit our diversified farm, the strawberry field always stands out for them. For me, along with asparagus, it represents the most challenging crop to grow organically. These two crops are not the most profitable, but I thrive on the agronomic challenges. Weeding is one of the main challenges and some growers choose to grow them on plastic. We use as little plastic as possible on the farm, so we still grow our strawberries on bare soil.

We have quite a diversified arsenal of mechanical and manual weeding tools. The secret, just as with any other crops, is to not let the weeds establish themselves, especially right after planting when the young plants are unable to compete. We use a wheel hoe equipped with finger weeders every 10 days. Later in the season we will use a rotary weeder, and of course some manual weeding. It is extremely important to ensure the best growing conditions in the first year as it determines the following year’s harvest.

We are blessed in not having any major diseases, although we have noticed more foliar diseases in the last few years, especially on more susceptible varieties. We have not used fungicides so far and we don’t intend to. As for pests, the main one is the tarnished plant bug. We reduce its damage by spraying insecticidal soap. We have never used any mechanical pest control, but we are looking into new biological methods that are being developed.

Next year we are considering insect netting for our strawberries, with bumble bees as pollinators underneath. But we really hesitate, as this will prevent our friend’s bees from harvesting the pollen… so the jury is still out on that alternative. We are lucky not to be seriously affected by the strawberry bud weevil.

But the main challenge is definitively labour, especially at harvest. In the first 10-12 years we were able to source young pickers from the surrounding area, but this has become increasingly difficult. We now rely mostly on our own crew, but this means falling behind schedule on our other crops. Labour is the main reason we are reducing our strawberry production, as it is taking too big a toll on other more profitable crops.

Nothing can beat the taste of a fresh strawberry eaten just seconds after being picked! Well, maybe our customers’ satisfaction is even more important. Hearing them say “those are the best strawberries I have ever tasted” represents a big chunk of our paycheck! We have become renowned for our strawberry production and it is the most striking produce in our CSA basket. So yes, it is rewarding… although not that much financially. Maybe it would be easier if we had fewer other crops to look after.

Most of our strawberries are marketed through our CSA boxes. Some sales are online through the Marché de l’Outaouais. Many natural food stores in the Gatineau-Ottawa region and organizations such as Ottawa Organic and Good Food 2U sell our berries. We also sell to other farmers who want to market them, but don’t grow their own. And of course, we sell directly at the farm. We DON’T do pick-your-own, as out farm is not easily accessible.

Our production system evolves over time. As mentioned, we are reducing our area in strawberries as it is too labor intensive. We are looking into trying different planting densities, to use less land for this crop. We used to keep our field for two years, but we found it unprofitable due to extra weeding and the reduced yield in the second season.

We will look into using our own strawberry runners for summer planting in order to produce strawberries early in the next season. Many organic growers were buying plugs to plant in the summer so that they would get an early harvest the following year, but this practice is no longer allowed by the Organic Standards. We look at this as a challenge and challenges keep us motivated!

If you are thinking of growing organic strawberries for market, I would suggest getting some experience in vegetable production in general before tackling this very demanding crop. Plan ahead since labour during harvest is very demanding. I suggest starting with one or two varieties for the first few years. It’s easy to grow a few strawberries, but it is quite a different story to make it profitable… but that is from our experience… some may beg to differ. Bonne chance!

Strawberries – A Jewel in June