Fresh strawberries in the winter? Leamington greenhouse strawberry grower wins Ontario innovation award

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fresh-picked local strawberries in the winter are no longer a fantasy in Essex County.

A Leamington greenhouse is growing strawberries and gearing up to have its berries in grocery stores by Christmas.

“I see it as a crop of the future,” Duffy Kniaziew, president of Orangeline Farms, said Tuesday.

The strawberries at Orangeline Farms are marketed as Zing! Healthy Foods and have been sold in Metro stores and at the greenhouse at Highway 77 and Road 14 north of Leamington. Locals already know about the winter strawberries and some will make a special trip to buy them at the greenhouse that has been working on the crop for six years.

“They’re almost like sugar bombs. They’re extremely sweet,” Kniaziew said.

The greenhouse strawberries grown in a region dominated by greenhouse tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers recently earned Orangeline Farms a 2016 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.

Essex County farms took two of the awards this week, both to innovative strawberry growers.

Brad Raymont of Raymont’s Berries in Cottam won for stretching the outdoor strawberry season from May to November. In 2012, the LaSalle Strawberry Festival was able to use Raymont’s Berries instead of buying berries from California.

Between the greenhouses and his farm at 445 East County Road 14, Essex County residents should be able to get fresh local strawberries year-round or pretty close to it, he said.

“It was fantastic to get recognized,” Raymont said Wednesday.

Orangeline Farms sees itself as specialty greenhouse growers and grows European runner beans, specialty peppers including some with heat, and the super-sweet strawberries. Kniaziew said he saw the passion consumers have for getting Ontario berries in June. He wants it to be natural for people to expect Ontario strawberries in the middle of January.

The problem with winter berries from Florida and California is they compromise taste for longevity, he said. “They have a wonderful taste of red,” Kniaziew joked.

The local Zing! Healthy Foods greenhouse berries, which sell for $3 to $7 a pound, are fresh and sweet, he said.

At least two other greenhouses are into strawberries, too. Kniaziew said consumers will come to expect and demand them, which will help the industry. In a year or two, Orangeline Farms wants to have a mass supply of strawberries for sale in the winter.

Kniaziew said he was “absolutely ecstatic” to be recognized with the Ontario award. “It’s something people are generally really excited about and for us, it keeps us on our toes. It forces us to innovate every day.”

There was no playbook to grow greenhouse strawberries so there has been some tweaking every year. At first, the strawberries were grown outside. Now the strawberry plants are grown hydroponically inside which allows nutrients to flow past their roots and the greenhouse has added LED lighting. The strawberry plants grow much like they would outside and the raised beds inside the greenhouse make it easier for workers to pick them.

This year is the 10th year of the Premier’s Awards for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence and about 50 awards will be handed out.