Hot days have Greater Victoria strawberry growers hastily picking to meet demand

Rob Galey holds one of his strawberries at Galey Farms’ Wilkenson Road field location in early June after they started their first pick of the year on May 30. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)Rob Galey holds one of his strawberries at Galey Farms’ Wilkenson Road field location in early June after they started their first pick of the year on May 30. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)
Satnam Dheensaw, back, and his family at Gobind Farms in Central Saanich. The hot weather in late May and early June fully ripened their first batch of the strawberries, leading to a rush to get them picked. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)Satnam Dheensaw, back, and his family at Gobind Farms in Central Saanich. The hot weather in late May and early June fully ripened their first batch of the strawberries, leading to a rush to get them picked. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)
Rob, left, and Ray Galey at Galeys Farms’ Wilkinson Road field. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)Rob, left, and Ray Galey at Galeys Farms’ Wilkinson Road field. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)
Satnam Dheensaw rings through some customers buying his Gobind Farms strawberries in early June. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)Satnam Dheensaw rings through some customers buying his Gobind Farms strawberries in early June. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)
Workers picking strawberries at Galey Farms’ Wilkinson Road field. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)Workers picking strawberries at Galey Farms’ Wilkinson Road field. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)
Satnam Dheensaw vets his strawberries at Gobind Farms. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)Satnam Dheensaw vets his strawberries at Gobind Farms. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)
Satnam Dheensaw and his daughters in the Gobind Farms fields. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)Satnam Dheensaw and his daughters in the Gobind Farms fields. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)

Satnam Dheensaw floats his hand over a green produce tray as candy-red berries cascade through his spread fingers. It’s one of several delicate hand checks his strawberries go through just minutes after they come off the vine at Gobind Farms in Central Saanich.

“Look at that, these are picture perfect berries,” Dheensaw said.

After weeks of waiting until they’re just right, a couple hot late May days has Greater Victoria’s strawberry growers at crunch time. The berries are at peak ripeness and need to be picked fast, but a gentle hand is needed to free each one from the plant without bruising them.

“We’ve been picking every day, seven days a week,” Dheensaw said, adding that 11 acres of early berries are ready to go. “When that berry is ripe, it’s got to be picked, it can’t sit an extra day.”

Strawberry season started almost a week earlier than last year, he added, and would’ve been even earlier had the nights not been so cool.

Satnam Dheensaw and his daughters in the Gobind Farms fields. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)

“(Strawberries) like the warmer weather at nights. With the hot weather we had earlier it really gave the plants a big boost.”

Thanks to the farm being able to get migrant workers into the fields on time this year, Dheensaw said there will no gaps in the berry harvest until fall.

READ: Shortage of foreign workers costs Saanich Peninsula berry farmer thousands

Stores selling strawberries from the mainland at cost means they’re only offering Dheensaw about two thirds of his usual price. He hopes people continue to flock to local markets and his farm as they’ve been doing throughout the pandemic.

Since staff at Galey Farms in Saanich started picking strawberries May 30, owner Rob Galey said, there’s been vehicles lined up from their stands waiting to buy, before he even put up any signs.

“We get people driving from Duncan, Sooke, everyday – they’re that good,” he said.

The season almost began with devastation, Galey said, when a May hailstorm blanketed his Wilkinson Road field in a sea of white. Kneeling down to to pluck a strawberry from the rows they planted 14 months ago, he recalled tending to the plants everyday afterward and how all their work was almost lost due to the 30-minute storm.

“The plants all came back and look at the crop, it’s beautiful,” he said. “I got lucky, someone’s got my back.”

Extreme weather changes over the last decade have been “heavily noticeable” to growers, Galey said. When it rains, it floods and when there’s wind, it blows harder now, he noted.

“Everything’s an extreme and when it’s hot it’s too hot.”

Galey’s now uses a micro-irrigation system to keep water in the soil during the hot weather. They’ve also installed quick-drainage equipment to mitigate flash floods, and wind shelters to protect the fields.

Ask Galey about mainland-grown berries and he said they can’t compete with local fruit – their berries are at market stands within hours of being picked.

“Being in the strawberry business is like selling lit dynamite,” he said. “As soon as you pick it, you just lit the wick.”

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Out at Andrew Engqvist’s Tomlinson Road stand in Central Saanich, a customer picked up a tray of strawberries.

“We can’t get enough of these,” she said.

Engqvist, a grower for five years, replied, “they’re really starting to sweeten up now.”

Another regular pulled up to the stand and called out, “you getting any sleep Andrew?”

It’s been a series of dawn ‘til dusk days for Engqvist of late. The recent heat wave and a shortage of workers have made it a rush to pick 600 pounds of strawberries every day.

Andrew Engqvist at his stand on Tomlinson Road. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)

“We’ll be picking right into September, maybe even into October. It’s been a good spring,” he said. “The crops are all looking phenomenal, so hopefully people come out and support local farms.”

The fifth generation of the Fox family to farm on the Peninsula, Engqvist grows for his family’s farms – Silver Rill Berry and Silver Rill Corn – but said his first-year stand has also been extremely busy.

“People have always seemed to support local out here, but they’re starting to more with the pandemic; they’re realizing how important food security is,” Engqvist said.

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