Driven by demand

Driven by demand

Features - Cover Story

Some growers, including Ontario-based Orangeline Farms, are growing strawberries indoors to better cater to consumers’ interest in the crop.

November 27, 2018

Orangeline Farms owner Duffy Kniaziew (left) and grower Steve Stasko (right)
Photo: Chad Barry

It’s Sunday morning, and a dad is grocery shopping for his family. As he enters the store and heads to the produce section, he checks his list. Strawberries, his and his daughter’s favorite fruit, are at the top of the list, so he heads directly to a strawberry display. He picks out two clamshells of dark red strawberries, quickly scans the fruit for any obvious issues and places them in his cart. He does not think about the strawberries again until he gets home and eats a handful. It’s September, so the berries are slightly out of season. But they are still edible, if a bit tart for his liking.

A few days later, he heads to the fridge to eat more. But when he takes them out and starts going through the package, he must throw away a handful because several have already gone bad. By the time he’s done going through the clamshells and eating what’s left, the family is out of strawberries. So, he scribbles strawberries back at the top of the family grocery list. He buys them again the following Sunday, and the process repeats itself.

Strawberries are the most popular berry in the United States, according to the California Strawberry Commission, and currently account for 63.9 percent of all berry sales. But the berries are also primarily grown outdoors — 97 percent of strawberries sold in the U.S. are currently field-grown in California, Florida or Mexico, per the California Strawberry Commission — and thus subject to the whims of Mother Nature even before they’re harvested.

The result is a crop that isn’t always what the consumer is looking for, which is a good-tasting strawberry that they purchase when it’s still fresh. It’s also a business opportunity for greenhouse growers who could localize strawberry production and turn it into a year-round operation.

“How many times do you go to the store, buy strawberries and get disappointed?” asks Dr. Chieri Kubota, a researcher at The Ohio State University. “All the time. If you have a fresh strawberry coming out in consistent quality, consumers will come back.”

Asia and Europe outpace North America

Dr. Kubota began her research into greenhouse strawberry production 10 years ago when she was still at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center; she moved her lab to The Ohio State University more than a year ago. She and a team of researchers started their research to determine whether strawberries could be an alternative crop for U.S. greenhouse tomato growers negatively impacted by an increase in imported Mexican tomatoes in the market. At the time, strawberries had already been produced indoors for several years in both Asia and Europe.

“Japan has been producing off-season strawberries for years and years,” Kubota says. “No one produces summertime strawberries at volume there.”

What she and her team learned in the time since then was that, in the U.S. and Canada, there was no data about what varieties worked well in greenhouses. Kubota notes that Asian and European growers have been growing greenhouse strawberries with different varieties than most U.S. growers use.

“Asian and European countries are growing with the June-bearing varieties — the short-day varieties,” she says. “The knowledge base we had was based on these varieties. In the U.S., growers use more day-neutral varieties. It’s totally different flowering and the physiology was completely new to me. We had to figure out everything.”

Additionally, Kubota says that how the berry industry in North America is oriented impacts growers’ ability to produce strawberries indoors. Strawberries must be grown from transplants, she says, and because the current market is comprised almost entirely of field-grown berries that consumers are already purchasing, there has not been a big push to alter the supply chain. In Europe and Asia, it’s the opposite and since 2006, the percentage of strawberries grown in the field has decreased from 85 percent to 76 percent, according to the Netherlands’ most recent agricultural census.

The lack of available transplant materials is also a concern for growers already growing strawberries indoors. According to Duffy Kniaziew, owner of Orangeline Farms, a grower based in Leamington, Ontario, Canada, consistent, quality transplant material is the key to growing high-quality greenhouse strawberries.

“With strawberries, you’re working from cuttings. It’s not as simple as ‘I need a seed, I’m using this variety from this seed house and it’s pretty well consistent every time I use it,” Kniaziew says. “You’re dealing with live materials that come with all kinds of variables and certainly you need strong propagation and plant-raising programs to be able to allow us on the production side to be consistent.”

According to Kubota, growers who are using substrates to grow tomatoes and/or cut flowers, would have the easiest time producing greenhouse strawberries as opposed to growers using soil. Additionally, she says greenhouse strawberry production requires a low night temperature, so growing them successfully also requires the right location. That could limit, she says, where greenhouse strawberries are grown in North America.

Orangeline Farms uses LED lighting to extend its growing season in Ontario.
Photo courtesy of Orangeline Farms

Getting ahead of the strawberry market

Orangeline Farms opened in 2000 as a greenhouse bell pepper producer. According to Kniaziew, Orangeline decided to grow peppers because it was a market with unfulfilled potential.

“Tomatoes and cucumbers were really well defined back then,” Kniaziew says. “Peppers were new in controlled environments back then. There was that natural appeal to us back then that is still there today, to grow a product that was supporting [and differentiating] the current supply chain.”

Around seven years ago, Kniaziew says strawberries appeared on Orangeline’s radar as a new opportunity. It was around the same time that the operation also shifted its business model. Up until 2012, Orangeline was a co-packer — meaning it grew the crops, but they were sold in someone else’s packaging. To better vertically integrate the business, Zing! Healthy Food was launched to be the grower’s public brand. Its products, including the “Date Night” strawberries, are now sold in Canadian stores such as Farm Boy and retailers in the Midwest and Northeast United States.

At first, Orangeline produced strawberries outside in raised gutters placed under umbrellas before moving production inside to all year in the often-cold (and not optimal for strawberries) Ontario weather. The strawberries are grown in a different part of the greenhouses than peppers, as the two crops have “vastly” different needs, according to Kniaziew. Orangeline also uses LED lighting to lengthen its growing season.

Orangeline Farms has produced strawberries in greenhouses for the last five years and sells them through the Zing! Healthy Foods brand.
Photo courtesy of Orangeline Farms

Kniaziew adds that his business approaches strawberry production more like cut flowers than a fruit or vegetable crop when planning the timing of growing cycles.

“A red rose has a certain value heading up to Valentine’s Day and considerably less the day after,” he says. “Strawberries are very much the same. You want to meet your marks — Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day. You want to hit your Easter cycle and Mother’s Day. It’s important to have your production peak at those times as opposed to seven days after the fact.”

Kniaziew says that the decision to start growing strawberries was influenced by two key factors. The first is the company’s conscious decision to look to Europe for inspiration and new fruits to produce. Much of what Orangeline does is based on what growers in Europe are already doing.

“We take much of our technology, most of our best practices as Canadian growers from European models,” Kniaziew says. “We look at what European companies are doing and that’s where the heart of the innovation is. And when we look there and know tomatoes are well-defined, cucumbers are well-defined and peppers are well-defined, we see a fourth crop in Europe that is taking a large percentage of the market place. And that’s strawberries.”

Dr. Chieri Kubota’s research aims to help bring North America’s strawberry market up to speed with Asia and Europe’s markets.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Chieri Kubota

The second factor, according to Kniaziew, is that Orangeline wants to better connect with its customer base in Ontario. According to Kniaziew, Ontario consumers have a connection with local produce and there is a local tradition of “picking your own” fruits; he calls it a “romance.” That isn’t an option for strawberries, so the idea was to offer consumers the next best thing and fill gaps in the mark when “pick your own” berries are no longer available each year.

“We asked “What if we could produce a local [strawberry] in the winter?’ when Canadians are buying imported strawberries from California, Florida or Mexico,” he says. “They never really taste like a local berry — they don’t have the same flavor and there’s quite a bit of shrink. When you buy an imported strawberry, you are going to throw out 10, 20, 30 percent of it. Somewhere in the supply chain, it breaks down and becomes something you’re not going to eat.”

Other growers, both big and small, produce strawberries in North American greenhouses, too. Driscoll’s drew attention in 2017 in articles in both The New Yorker and Bloomberg for its aim to “reinvent” the strawberry and “hack it for the future.” A major part of the company’s efforts involved greenhouse trials of different varieties as they developed proprietary varieties only it would grow. Mucci Farms and DelFrescoPure, both growers based in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada, grow strawberries in greenhouses, too.

Growers such as Jesse Adkins at Hurricane Creek Farms in Pelzer, South Carolina, started growing strawberries because they felt it would be a way to build a local brand. The business is in its second year of strawberry production in a hydroponic system.

“We have several restaurants nearby that want to get them,” he says. “But they sell out before we can get them to restaurants.”

Orangeline Farms trialed strawberry production outside before moving it inside its greenhouses and committing to the crop.
Photo courtesy of Chad Barry

The future of greenhouse berries

The demand for greenhouse-grown strawberries is expected to continue its growth in the next few years, according to Kniaziew. A main driver of that growth is the fact that, oftentimes, imported strawberries don’t last long enough for consumers to eat or use every strawberry they purchase. By the time they reach store shelves, they are days removed from being picked and can lose some of their shelf life in transit, particularly if the weather is poor. The idea is that even if local berries cost slightly more per package, the local production and better shelf life justify a higher price.

“I could not come with another product that consumers would buy and then throw 30 percent out and over and over again,” he says. “To some extent, it’s madness.”

Even so, Kniaziew doesn’t see a scenario when greenhouse-grown berries push imported, field-grown varieties out of the market. California produced 169.5 million strawberries in its last growing season, per the California Strawberry Commission, so it’s hard to see greenhouse producers being able to match volume. Instead, Kniaziew says growers should cater to a niche.

Strawberries must be grown at lower temperatures than peppers, tomatoes and other vegetable crops.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Chieri Kubota

“You have the Ontario greenhouse berry competing against the traditional imported berry,” he says. “They’re on the same shelf, but they are certainly at different price points. There’s also going to be a market for a commercial berry where someone has a need for strawberries for a recipe and can buy two clamshells for $5. That’s good value. And there’s another side of the market that’s willing to pay a premium for local. I see both having a place in the marketplace, and it’s a very large marketplace.”

According to Kubota, there’s still a lot to learn about growing strawberries in the greenhouse and there has to be more market buy-in to the concept of greenhouse-grown berries. But like Kniazew, Kubota believes the market drive must be consumer satisfaction with the berries.

“Consumers come back based on their experience,” she says. “And I think retail stores are looking for that too instead of shipping [strawberries] all the way from California or Mexico or Florida.” Dr. Kubota also says strawberries could follow the path of greenhouse-grown tomatoes, which were only a small share of the market 20 to 30 years ago until retail stores embraced greenhouse tomatoes and pushed their market share to around 50 percent.

For the market for greenhouse-grown strawberries to grow, Kniaziew believes more greenhouse-grown berries must be introduced. He feels that if blackberries, blueberries and raspberries could be produced locally in a greenhouse, it would only raise consumer awareness of greenhouse-grown berries. And he expects that both blackberries and raspberries should hit the market in three to five years with blueberries being a bit farther off.

“That’s where this is headed,” Kniaziew says. “For consumers to be able to buy all these berries in the middle of the winter.”