A strawberry’s journey: From West to feast
Its ancestors trace back to Chile and the woodlands of eastern North America. But the one that’s hot now is as engineered as a laptop computer and maybe as well-travelled. Join the modern strawberry on its trek to your table.
LUCAS OLENIUK / TORONTO STAR
The Star tracked its box of berries from the field at Watsonville, Calif. to a gathering at the Burlington home where they were served. (Feb. 6, 2009)
By:Catherine PorterColumnist, Published on Sun Jun 21 2009
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Qundeel Ahmed’s guests lounge in her comfy sofas, chit-chatting about a recent cricket game. Women in elaborate salwar kameez share wedding stories over her kitchen island, fanning their tongues between bites of stuffed green chillies.
The dining room table is heavy with half-eaten chicken karahi and kebabs, sun streams through the windows, the hours stretch languidly.
It is a perfect Sunday afternoon party.
Just when no one can squeeze down another mouthful, Ahmed unveils the pièce-de-résistance: a chocolate fountain and a bowl of fresh strawberries.
They are perfection – luscious red, flawless, the size of plums, and each has travelled 4,900 kilometres from California.
Not long ago, strawberries were synonymous with June in Ontario. They were small, delicate bursts of summer. They were a luxury.
Today, they are a staple in grocery stores. They outlive salami in your fridge, and instead of June, they conjure California.
In Ontario, we eat more of them every year while growing fewer of them.
Besides the odd pang of guilt, few of us think about what goes into those berries. How do they grow them so big? How do they get across a continent unblemished? How do they grow in November?
We went to California to find out.
What we discovered was a finely-tuned production line involving geneticists, mechanical engineers, laboratory technicians, patent lawyers, chemists, plant biologists and lobbyists.
A simple fruit Romans picked wild to cure melancholy, the strawberry has become a symbol of both human ingenuity and recklessness.
“The idea of Johnny Appleseed throwing seeds into the ground and having things grow is totally erroneous,” says Curt Gaines, the self-described strawberry cop of California. “This is not a natural world.”
The story of Qundeel Ahmed’s strawberries started more than a decade ago, with pollen from one strawberry flower on the tip of a paintbrush in Doug Shaw’s hand. He brushed it onto the stigma of another plant in his greenhouse. It was one of thousands of crosses he and his staff made that fall.
Once the fruit resulting strawberries formed, Shaw’s technicians put them into an enzyme gel to free the seeds. Every berry has around 200 seeds. Each one is genetically unique. Around 13,000 were eased into thimblefuls of soil and watered.
You’ve likely never heard of him, but Shaw created most of the California strawberries you eat. He is the leading strawberry geneticist and breeder at the University of California’s Davis campus.
Davis, northeast of San Francisco, is the Pentagon of California’s strawberry empire, which has grown from 350,000 tonnes in 1986 to 907,000 now. Today, California pumps out 88 per cent of the strawberries Americans eat and the majority of ours too.
Shaw’s colleagues at Davis study the plant from dozens of angles, including toxicology, entomology, pesticides, handling.
Shaw has a PhD in genetics but spends most of his time wearing the humble uniform of a California grower – plaid short-sleeved shirt, jeans, baseball cap. A fierce supporter of the industry, he thinks the local-food movement is a sham.
“I lived in Sweden,” he says, sitting on the edge of his test plot in the late-afternoon sun, a crate of giant strawberries warming beside him. “Eating local produce there means eating only rutabagas and potatoes in winter. That’s not how I want to live.” In 1997, Shaw brought the best 300 seedlings to his test plot in Watsonville. He let them multiply and combed the rows, inspecting and tasting. He was looking for colour, shape, disease-resistance, sweetness.
Like apples, strawberries come in thousands of varieties, although few people can name them. All date back to a chance romance between two wild plants in a Dutch garden around 250 years ago. One was Chilean – secreted back to Europe on a French exploration vessel. The other came from the Virginia woods.
The result was a more vigorous plant bearing larger berries. Strawberry breeding was born.
Strawberries are very complicated little plants. They produce seeds, but also reproduce vegetatively – stretching out tendrils to create genetically identical “daughters.”
Humans have two sets of each chromosome. Strawberries have eight.
“There’s a lot of genetic magic to this,” Shaw says.
The Davis campus has been making strawberry magic for 75 years. In 1983, it pulled off an awesome trick – a plant that continued to produce berries all summer, oblivious to the heat and long days.
That gave California growers a distinct advantage. While most Ontario berry farmers pray for a five-week season, California growers harvest the same plant twice a week for nine straight months.
The berries have continued to improve since then.
“Every time we think we’ve come up with a really good one, we think we can’t replace it,” Shaw says with more boyish enthusiasm than bravado. “And we do.”
He spotted another winner in his test plot. Its berries were bigger still and sweet. He named it Albion – a reference to Sir Francis Drake’s name for California, “Nova Albion.” His friends call it the “red avocado.”
“This year we’ve got 300 million [Albion plants] in California,” Shaw says. “Every one traces back to one seed on one berry in history that could have gotten stuck in your teeth.”
THE FOUNDATION Plant Service is like a spa for plants. It’s where, eight years ago, the great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of Qundeel’s strawberries was born again in a pure, disease-free form.
The way strawberry plants produce clones is both their commercial strength and weakness. It means once you have a great product, you can mass produce it. But if one plant succumbs to disease, they all fall. After being admitted, one of Shaw’s plants was chosen as the variety’s official mother. She was sent into a sauna for a three-week heat treatment. If the plant survives the heat, most pathogens won’t, the theory goes.
But to be safe, lab technicians cut out stem cells from the tips of her runners – where cells grow so quickly, viruses can’t catch up with them.
“We’ve been doing this program for 15 years,” says Susan Sim, the centre’s plant pathologist in charge of strawberries. “We’ve never once had a plant come out with a virus.” Dressed in cargo pants and hiking boots, Sim looks like she’d be more comfortable on a mountainside than a laboratory. But she is enamoured with the light of possibilities glimmering beneath her 100x powered microscope.
“It stuns me how alive and vibrant the cells are,” she says, holding up a tray of test tubes. “They’re gorgeous.” Inside each one, a five-centimetre strawberry plant grows. That’s how big they are after five months of intense humidity and light. They are now sent to a humidity chamber and then a greenhouse to grow. The procedure not only cleans them, but boosts their productivity by as much as 400 per cent.
“The theory is it sends them back to a more juvenile state,” Sim says.
After three years of testing, the first 98 certified Albion strawberry plants were released to nurseries in 2004.
It’s hard to imagine even a dandelion growing in Lassen Canyon’s nursery in Manteca. It looks like a dust bowl – sand for as far as you can see.
But Qundeel’s irrigated berries’ forebears not only grew here, they thrived.
Lassen is the biggest nursery in California. It sells 325 million strawberry plants around the world every year. It does so by moving the plants around to a myriad of secluded fields and prompting them to reproduce.
The numbers are staggering.
A year after leaving the lab, Qundeel’s berries’ forebears had already borne 200 daughters each in a greenhouse. Then, set in these well-drained fields, those plants produced around 350 more over two years.
Finally, they ventured up near the snow-capped mountains of Northern California for “chilling.” The cold prompts the plants to send carbohydrates to their roots, “like a bear in winter with fat” says Gaines, who managed Lassen before running UC Davis’ patent system. “That way you are going to have a plant that kicks ass when it’s planted.”
By the time they graduate from the nursery, every single clean plant has made 25 million daughters. “And that’s being extremely conservative,” says Gaines, a former hippie who converted to pesticide-use after two years of exhausting work as an organic farmer. “It could realistically turn into 120 million.”
From the nursery, the plants took a ride to Watsonville, two hours south of San Fransciso. This is the capital of four main strawberry-producing regions dotting the southern coast of California, where the climate suits them – cool summers, mild winters. There are more acres of strawberries here than in all of Ontario, every one producing more than 15 times as much fruit.
Just outside of town, strawberry fields spread like the ocean, wave after glistening wave. The lustre is from plastic sheeting – which helps control weeds and keep fruit clean – reflecting the light.
Mexican pickers dot the fields. Fog hangs heavily above them. It is 11 a.m. on a recent Friday and just 11 degrees.
Eddie Mehl steps out of his truck to watch their progress. He is the largest strawberry farmer with the Watsonville Berry Co-Op. This is his field.
Mehl got his start in high school, packing lettuce. He earned enough money to buy his first car – a green Porshe 911, second-hand – at 16. It convinced him he’d be happier farming than behind a computer. But he doesn’t get much time on a tractor. He’s too busy managing people. His payroll tops $75,000 a week.
“It’s a big, giant factory,” says Mehl, 56. “But it’s outside.”
Strawberry farming in California is highly mechanized. Before planting, every field is fumigated, often with methyl bromide. It’s a toxic, ozone-depleting gas that kills everything down to 2.4 metres – weeds, fungi, bugs. Then tractors mould the soil into furrows, to boost drainage and speed up picking. Plastic irrigation tubes thread each bed, providing precise amounts of water and fertilizer. Once the plants are in place, they are covered with plastic. Workers burn individual holes to free each plant.
The only hitch is the labour. No one has invented a successful mechanical planter or harvester for strawberries. They are too fragile. Fingers plant them; fingers pick them.
Qundeel’s Albion berries are hiding on plants down one long furrow.
Isidro Guillen Olvera heads out to pick them. He carries a cardboard tray with eight plastic containers called clamshells. Spanish music bleats from a portable stereo nearby. Swallows dart overhead.
At 48, Olvera is older than most of his peers. He’s been picking strawberries in Watsonville for 14 years now, sending money to his wife and five children in Mexico. He’s an expert picker.
Placing the tray onto his “pick cart” – a knee-high, metal rack – Olvera opens the first clamshell and sets to work. He bends at the waist and sweeps his hand around a plant searching for hidden berries. It takes him less than five minutes to fill eight containers, including Qundeel’s. Already labelled, they are sealed and ready to go.
Olvera hoists the tray up like a waiter and carries it to a waiting pickup, where it is loaded atop a wooden pallet. He hands a pink card to a woman to be punched. By morning’s end, his card will have 58 holes – earning him $76. During peak season, a fast picker can make $150.
He grabs another tray and wades back into the field.
By the time the truck rolls off carrying Qundeel’s berries, he has long forgotten them.
Two minutes later, they roll into what looks like the pickup area of an IKEA store – high metal ceilings, towering crates, beeping forklifts.
This is the Watsonville Berry Co-op’s packing plant. Qundeel’s berries are here for cooling.
Once picked, strawberries don’t last long. When you are sweating in the sun, the berries are even hotter.
California scientists have spent a lot of time pondering this. Their experiments revealed that at 2 degrees Celsius, strawberries will last 10 days instead of hours.
“For every hour delay before cooling, you lose about 10 per cent of strawberries at the retail level,” explains Adel Kader, a retired professor of post-harvest handling who co-authored a 500-page textbook on the topic.
Taken to a walk-in cooler like those on most Ontario farms, berries can take three days to cool. So, engineers designed specialized forced-air coolers.
The workers inside Watsonville Berry Co-op’s cooler are dressed like snowboarders – snow pants, jackets and gloves. Five giant fans whirl down one wall, sucking frigid air through the pallets of berries nestled beside them. Here, it takes less than three hours to bring fever off berries.
Qundeel’s berries, though, are shuttled to the new, state-of-the-art cooler. It is a tunnel – the pallet rolls though it on a conveyer. This system takes half the time and one-fifth the electricity, says Tom Simmons, the Co-Op’s buoyant general manager.
He yanks open a door to the plant’s thousand-horsepower back-up generator. Running full-tilt, it can produce 700,000 watts – enough to power three neighbourhood blocks in Toronto.
That box of California strawberries requires a lot of energy.
The Co-op’s system is more efficient than many others. Over a year, it sucks down as much electricity as 58 Toronto homes – a lot more than the average Ontario farm. But it produces 18,000 tonnes of strawberries a year – enough to feed 7 million Americans their 2.7-kilogram average annual serving. After cooling, the next step is Techtral treatment. That’s strawberry talk for carbon dioxide. The pallet including Qundeel’s berries is wrapped in plastic and sealed. Then, the oxygen is sucked out and replaced with 15 per cent carbon dioxide.
“It helps put the strawberries to sleep,” explains Simmons. Three and a half hours after being picked, Qundeel’s berries are ready to go. By evening’s end, hers and dozens of pallets of other berries will be travelling throughout North America – to Tennessee, South Carolina, Vancouver. The furthest destination is Toronto.
A silver 18-wheel truck backs slowly into the loading slip. Craning at the wheel is 41-year-old Tim Hoover. The bunk bed behind him has been hastily made. An empty Gatorade bottle rolls near the gearshift.
His weary father Doug sits beside him. They’ve just arrived from delivering a load of freezies from a Vaughan plant to Salt Lake City.
Most cross-country trucks are driven by teams. That way they lose no time, switching between the wheel and bed, stopping only long enough to pee and pick up more Gatorade.
Tim Hoover’s truck roars into Watsonville about twice a month. On other weeks, he goes to the Texas border, picking up Mexican lemons.
Does he like strawberries? “I don’t mind them,” he says.
Qundeel’s berries are protected with cardboard padding and loaded onto the trailer. Inflatable plastic pillows are nestled between the loads.
Fifteen minutes later, Hoover pulls out to join a brigade of trucks creeping east. At the season’s peak, 280 trucks will carry berries out of Watsonville every week.
“Food-miles” became a hot subject a few years ago. It wasn’t long ago that cities like Toronto largely fed themselves. But now, the average pear you buy has travelled 6,000 kilometres.
Although vilified by locavores, food travelling long distances by truck doesn’t necessarily result in more greenhouse gases. On a per-pound basis, an 18-wheeler emits one-fifteenth the carbon dioxide of a delivery van heading to a local farmers’ market. The latest studies reveal the distance food travels by truck matters less than how that food was produced. The second biggest energy-hog in the system is the consumer. How many people across North America will drive to grocery stores to buy these strawberries, chuck them in the fridge and a week later throw them out uneaten?
But still, when compared to local produce grown in season, imported fruit usually loses, hands-down. And that’s not including the additional spin-offs – local jobs, food security, green space.
If they had a window, Qundeel’s strawberries would get a great view. They climb up over the Rockies, pass grazing buffalo in Wyoming, trundle through the suburbs of Chicago and the idle auto plants in Flint, and with a flash of papers, slip into Canada.
They travel 4,868 kilometres. The fuel bill totals $2,450 (U.S.). Divided evenly, that’s 11 cents a box.
The truck stops briefly in Fort Erie to drop off Doug, and then roars down the QEW towards the Ontario Food Terminal. The berries arrive just after 4 a.m. on a Sunday and nestle down to sleep.
During the day, one dreamy misstep at the Food Terminal will get you run over by a careening mountain of Chinese ginger. Trucks pull in and out every few minutes, loading and unloading fresh fruit and vegetables from around the world. Men zip the loads on motorized carts to showrooms where buyers peel open boxes and bargain with sales managers.
This early on a Sunday morning, it is still quiet.
Mohammad Nazari is taking stock of what remains in his warehouse. He is the sales and purchasing manager for J.E. Russell Produce, the biggest importer of berries at the terminal. On busy days, he unloads six trucks of strawberries and sells them all by nightfall.
Today, his warehouse is bare and already the orders are rushing in.
“I should have ordered one more truck,” he says.
But last week’s rain meant slow sales. The result was cheap berries – $14 for a 4.5-kilogram tray. When Ontario strawberry season hits its stride, the price will drop further. Come November, the same tray will cost $30.
Outside, the night fades to blue and Hoover’s truck is motioned to the slip. Two workers step out of a heated office plastered with photos of pin-up girls to unload the pallet that includes Qundeel’s berries. The plastic is ripped off, the berries’ temperature is taken, and they are whizzed to a chilly warehouse to await their fate.
Qundeel’s berries could have gone to a Niagara restaurant or an Ottawa grocery store. Instead, they are packed into a cube van and raced down the quiet QEW towards Burlington. During rush hour, this trip can take hours. Today, the berries cover 37 kilometres in 25 minutes – pulling into the Longo’s on the edge of a new strip mall.
Inside, produce manager Stephen McDermott greets them eagerly. He’s got a sale on California strawberries – two for $5 – and he’s down to only 16 boxes.
He bypasses the cooler and wheels them out to the floor immediately.
“They will go fast,” McDermott says over his shoulder, passing the Ontario asparagus. Soon, he’ll have a display of Ontario strawberries too. But they won’t displace the California ones. “We want to appease all customers.”
As if on cue, Qundeel Ahmed arrives. She’s just jumped out of bed, rushing out of the house as her 22-month-old continues sleeping. Her feet are jammed into her 12-year-old daughter’s running shoes. The laces are still undone.
Her time is tight – two hours to clean the house, finish the cooking, get her kids dressed, shower .
But she takes a minute to examine the display. She loves strawberries. When she was growing up in Pakistan, they were a luxury.
Packed into the back seat of her Nissan, the berries take one last trip to Qundeel’s big suburban home three kilometres away.
By noon, Qundeel is transformed – delicate pink kameez, immaculate pink nails, a coat of lipstick.
The California strawberries look glamorous too. Which is astounding, given what they’ve just been through.
Think: Since they were picked two days ago, those berries have been helped to Toronto by more than 15 hands. They’ve crossed eight state lines and one federal border, riding in a dozen vehicles, including two trucks, a car, a pickup and eight forklifts. They’ve seen fog, rain and now, bright sun.
All for the price of a ride on the subway.
“They’re amazing,” Ahmed says, popping one into her toddler’s mouth. “Very sweet.”
Courtesy: The Star