Virus devastates strawberry fields in Quebec
MONTREAL — These days, Martin Marineau is out of bed and working the fields just after sunrise. No matter what the day throws at him, whether it’s sweltering heat, rain or some man-made obstacle, he’ll likely only punch out at around 10 p.m.
Marineau will keep this routine up seven days a week for the next month. It’s the height of strawberry picking season in Quebec and the longtime farmer knows he only has a small window of time to get his harvest in crates and ready for customers.
But like so many of the province’s 700 strawberry farmers, Marineau’s crops have been devastated by the mild yellow edge virus and the strawberry mottle virus.
“I’ve lost a good 50 per cent of my yield, easily half,” Marineau said from the three acre family farm in Ste-Dorothée. “It’s a terrible year, the strawberries we’re getting are good, it’s just that we’re not producing nearly enough.”
Experts say the viruses likely originate from Quebec plant nurseries that sold the infected seedlings to farmers across the province. The head of Quebec’s strawberry growers’ association says farms that bought their seedlings from Ontario aren’t nearly as affected as those who purchase plants locally.
“It’s unclear exactly what the extent of the damage is but I’ve spoken to people who lost as much as 75 per cent of their crops,” said Michel Sauriol, president of the Association des producteurs de fraises et framboises du Québec (APFFQ). “We sent out a survey to farmers across Quebec Monday and should begin to get a better grasp of the situation. ... We’re also lobbying the government to see if there’s anything they can do to help. People are losing their livelihood.”
The viruses don’t affect the fruit itself, which remains safe for consumption, but they do cripple the growth of the plant.
Valérie Gravel, a plant science professor at McGill University, says two factors led to the outbreak.
“A lot of plant nurseries clone their plants instead of using pollination. So if you’re cloning an infected plant then the virus spreads to all the plants you’ve made,” Gravel said. “In the fields, the virus is likely being spread by aphids (parasites). The aphids feed on an infected plant, move on to feed on a non-infected one and contaminate it.”
The humid, warm summer has created the ideal conditions for aphids to thrive, Gravel said.
For the farmers who rely on strawberries to make a living, this season has been a writeoff. Sauriol says the association will try to standardize testing at nurseries to insure no more infected seedlings are sold to farmers. And, as a silver lining amid the crisis, he says the fall strawberry harvest shouldn’t be affected by the viruses.
“Next year will be better, these plants were in their last cycle anyway,” Sauriol said. “But a lot of people are hurting.”
Over on the Marineau farm, the family business has had to turn away customers looking to take their children strawberry picking.
“We would open, people would come and soon enough there’d be nothing left for them to pick,” Marineau said. “It’s not exactly a good business practice to have to turn customers aside.”
Lately, however, the farm has been able to accommodate visitors and with the raspberry picking season beginning early Saturday, things are starting to look up. Still, the virus has complicated things for Marineau and his brother Louis, who both own the farm.
The farm, Marineau says, employs about 25 people at the fruit stand and another 15 to pick the fields. Because his crops aren’t insured, the virus will have significant ramifications for Marineau’s bottom line.
“Some of my pickers had to go work elsewhere because there’s not enough for them to do here,” he said. “It’s been hell, it’s been just awful. But we keep working, keep our heads down, keep grinding away. We have no other choice.”