While older folk might pick strawberries for making jam or desserts, Darren Cormier said the younger crowd tends to use their berries to blend up smoothies or margaritas.
Darren and his wife, Angie, run Cormier’s Berry Patch on PR 247, two kilometres east of La Salle. Darren jokingly describes the primarily U-pick operation as a family hobby, as he and Angie work full-time at other jobs. But in reality, they devote hundreds of hours to preparing the strawberry fields, planting seedlings, running the U-pick business, then cleaning up the fields and preparing them for winter. All weeding must be done by hand as the plants can’t be sprayed with a herbicide.
This year, they have 10 acres planted with Kent strawberries, the variety commonly grown in western Canada. About one-third of the land contains new plants, with the remainder covered by plants that will bear fruit for a second year. Darren said the plants are replaced after three years, so their land is in constant rotation.
They have installed an irrigation system that draws water from the nearby La Salle River.
Angie said the idea for starting a strawberry U-pick business came up when they lived in Winnipeg.
"We both grew up on farms, with agriculture around us," she said.
Her parents ran a grain and hog operation near Domain and Darren’s parents, who live close by, had beef cattle and a market garden.
The couple wanted to give their children the chance to experience a rural lifestyle, so they moved to their property near La Salle in 2007.
Angie said starting the business wasn’t easy, as neither had much knowledge, but they got good advice from other berry growers.
"We became members of the Prairie Fruit Growers Association," she said.
"It’s been gradual in terms of growth," Angie said. "You have to expand with the demand."
One of three U-pick berry farms in the area, part of the challenge of developing this type of business is establishing a loyal clientele who are ready to drive out and pick when the berries are ripe.
Darren said the farm’s proximity to the south end of Winnipeg helps them. They communicate with their customers through email, on their web site at www.cormiersberrypatch.com, and Facebook notifications. They also post signs along local roadways directing people to their farm.
Each season is different in terms of when the berries will be ready for picking, Darren said. But even when the cold weather lingers, as it did this year, growing conditions usually improve and the berries ripen by about the last week in June or first two in July.
Once he spots blooms on the plants, Darren knows the short, but hectic season is about to begin.
"We find the berry season runs from pre-dawn to dusk," he said.
They hire local youth to help and are involving their four children as they become old enough to pitch in.