Pick-your-own strawberry plantation felled by frost in the Ottawa valley

Jon Rochon among the deceptively healthy looking rows. Van Dusen photo, Nation Valley News

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

EDWARDS — Looks can be deceiving even to the most experienced fruit producers.

When Jon Rochon entered his 16-acre pick-your-own strawberry patch on York’s Corners Road Monday morning, he heaved a sigh of relief.

At first glance, it looked as if row upon row of plants had escaped relatively unscathed from an overnight frost which descended upon swaths of Eastern Ontario; the plants were green and bushy, the flowers perky just as they were supposed to be at this stage in the season.

What Rochon discovered when he dug a little deeper. Van Dusen photo, Nation Valley News

Then Rochon dug a little deeper. When he pushed foliage aside, he found clusters of flowers with their centers blackened, destroyed. To make sure, Rochon taste-tested some, biting into flowers and getting a brittle, crystallized texture instead of soft and spongy. They were destroyed… there was no coming back!

The hoped-for solution, to heavily irrigate leading up to the anticipated frost, didn’t work. Complicating matters  was straw laid down between the rows to block weeds; it acted as insulation preventing heat stored in the ground from counteracting the frost.

A little more time will tell but Jon and partner Ann Marie Rochon estimate an 80 per cent loss of the 2021 strawberry crop accounting for about 40 per cent of annual revenues. For the first time in decades, there’s likely to be no pick-your-own option this year: Not enough berries and not enough return.

“It’s simple economics,” said Jon who has spent most of his life in the business started by his parents 60 years ago. “While I love having families coming out to enjoy a few hours of picking, I get $16 for a large box of berries as opposed to $20 if my workers pick them and we sell at farmers markets.”

Employing 18 immigrant workers and managed by several family members, the Rochons attend some 15 weekly farmers markets in Ottawa and area, including on the Quebec side. In order to maintain quality control, they don’t wholesale to retail stores.

Part of the regional strawberry growers’ grapevine, Jon said other berry producers were also hurt by the frost. South east of Kemptville, Green Gables Winery is reporting a 40 per cent loss of its 2021 crop. As a result, the business will be forced to ship in extra grapes from Niagara Region.

The Rochons have never experienced a similar weather crisis. While the recent frost and high winds battered other produce such as tomatoes grown at their main Edwards location, those plants will probably fully bounce back. Because there were no previous calamities, Ann Marie said the strawberry crop wasn’t insured.

The fatal frost came at a time regional crop producers were experiencing the driest may in a century.

The Rochons started with a few acres of berries around the corner on Regional Road 6 before establishing two major sites on York’s Corners Road. A big part of the business today is the Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program delivering boxes of produce to more than 2,000 clients weekly from May 18 to Oct. 22. The program is sold out for this year.

Scroll down to share this article. Scroll down to search nationvalleynews.com. Scroll down to comment.