Crop resilience surprises expert

Carl Clutchey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

Seasonal berries in Thunder Bay-area farm country are reasonably plentiful this summer even in the aftermath of an unusually dry spring.

But while they have berries for sale, growers are asking for patience.

“Demand is very high for berries during the first half of the season, and we are working with decreased acreage this year,” Slate River valley veteran operator Belluz Farms said this week on its website.

Tarlok Sahota, the director of Lakehead University’s Agricultural Research Station, said he was pleasantly surprised this week to find that other crops in the valley “looked good,” even though June saw little rain fall on rural Thunder Bay.

Belluz Farms is able to utilize a sprinkler irrigation system when conditions are dry, Sahota noted.

“I spoke with (Belluz operator) Kevin Belluz (on Thursday) and he is happy with the strawberry production,” Sahota said. “His crops weren’t affected by the drought.”

Sahota said he plans on seeing how Murillo-area farm fields are bearing up on Monday.

According to Environment Canada, about 51 millimetres of rain fell on Thunder Bay last month — about 35 mm less than the normal total amount for June.

The bulk of the 51 mm arrived in the last week of the month. That gave area farmers some hope they could plant other crops and still salvage the season, although a second cut of hay for dairy and other livestock operators seemed unlikely.

Just east of Thunder Bay, veteran Hurkett strawberry producer Claudette Nuttall said she’s grateful her operation switched to a table-top plant system two years ago.

The lack of rain in the early part of June devastated the strawberry crop that is normally planted in a pick-your-own field at her farm south of Highway 11-17.

“I’ve seen it dry like this, but it’s usually later in the summer, not so early in the season,” Nuttall said.

Nuttall’s table-top system operates inside a greenhouse; plants are watered by a drip method. She said the variety of strawberries it uses can keep producing berries until the first frost of the season.

Both the Belluz operation and Nuttall said due to high demand, it’s essential that people who want to come out and pick, that they book time slots in advance.

Meanwhile, LU’s research station is experimenting this summer with some new agricultural products aimed at helping local farmers “improve soil health or crop yields, while minimizing environmental impacts.”

One of the trials involves a variety of Holganix, “a mixture of multiple soil organisms that improve soil health.”

The additive is being tested on spring wheat, barley, canola and soybean, a LU news release said.