|Marty Verhey (left) and Nico Verhoef stand among the troughs of strawberries|
growing at a Vineland farm.
For most people, strawberry season 2011 seems but a distant memory.
For Nico Verhoef and Marty Verhey, it's just getting started. The two young farming entrepreneurs' first crop of berries more synonymous with summer than September are nearly ready to be harvested.
But the duo will be reaping more than their first fruit crop. They'll be gaining some insight into a unique way to grow the heart-shaped fruit.
Verhoef and Verhey have been growing their first patch of 4,000 strawberry plants in raised troughs that stand about chest high — a method not entirely uncommon in Holland, where their idea to grow berries this way is rooted, but virtually unheard of here.
"With this system, we're hoping to get the best strawberry possible — to use Niagara's strengths, which is the climate, to make the best strawberry," Verhoef said.
Think fruit boasting the beauty of a California berry but with all the flavour and buttery texture that is a Niagara strawberry.
"If you can get an Ontario berry to market that looks like that but tastes better, it'll sell itself," Verhoef said.
Much like the idea of growing the berries in troughs did last year when Verhoef and Verhey, then business administration students at Brock University, used the innovation as the basis for an award-winning business plan.
At the behest of a professor, the two budding berry moguls entered their concept in the Nicol Entrepreneurial Award competition. Not only did they nab accolades at Brock, their concept was chosen as the winning one at the national level.
Growing berries in troughs boasts lower labour costs because the ripe berries hang over the edges of the narrow containers, making them easier and faster to pick than those in patches that require rifling through to find the fruit, Verhoef explained.
|Berries growing in the troughs being tested by Nico Verhoef and Marty Verhey.|
Because the troughs stand high off the ground, there's also less risk for disease damage and hungry insects making a meal of a grower's work. That makes these berries candidates for the organic title, something Verhoef and Verhey are hopeful to achieve, challenging as it may be with this finicky fruit.
"We hear strawberries are pretty much the most difficult crop to grow organically. They're susceptible to disease and they don't compete well with weeds," Verhoef explained. "Even though we have a system that's good for it, if we get a pest and we can't control it organically, we don't want it to wipe out an entire two-acre crop.
"The whole fact is, no one's done this before ... . Everything's unknown. Everything's been a test."
Still, their idea was further validated with a $10,000 Nitsolopoulos Entrepreneurship Award, intended to be seed money for businesses started by Brock students.
That gave Verhoef, who operates his own landscaping company in St. Catharines, and Verhey, who runs a tree nursery in Paris and works in his family's business in Ancaster, the validation that they may be on to something.
"That made us think twice about it," Verhoef said. "It's not like when we wrote our business plan, we wanted to be strawberry farmers. Others were seeing the promise so we thought we should give it a shot."
|Marty Verhey (left) and Nico Verhoef check on their first|
But the cherry on top may just have been when Niagara's biggest berry farmers — and among the largest in the province — saw the promise in the duo's strawberry cultivation innovation.
Dan Tigchelaar and his brother Jeff, who have mastered the art of growing berries using plastic mulch to extend the growing season, have provided room for the idea to grow on their Vineland farm. They're also mentoring the 23-year-old farming proteges, who don't come from farm families, yet whose fruit will be found in berry quarts with the Tigchelaars' crop that are coming soon to a supermarket near you.
"It's so great to draw from that knowledge base. We're business students, so we definitely don't know how to grow strawberries the way they do," Verhoef said.
As the two have watched a school assignment-turned-introduction to farming come to fruition over the last few weeks, they're catching on.
And they're enjoying it.
"It's super exciting," Verhoef said about the progress of their first crop. "It's rewarding growing something."
NiAGara: Farm Heroes and Agvocates profiles local farmers and local food advocates. Do you have a farm hero or agvocate that people should know about? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.