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Sobeys Quebec kicks off strawberry season

Contest asks shoppers when they think strawberries will go on sale at IGA stores

As contests go, officials with Sobeys Quebec think they've come up with a sweet way to promote the imminent start of the strawberry harvest in la belle province. But the big winners of next week's online consumer contest could be berry producers and IGA store owners. Starting June 1, consumers can go on the provincial berry growers' association's website and enter their guess as to the date when the first Quebec-grown strawberries will go on sale at IGA stores. Ten winners will be chosen, and each will receive free weekly baskets of berries throughout the harvest season. "The contest is an opportunity for us to explain the harvest to consumers (and) assume our role as a retailer to meet and answer consumer demand," said Marie-Noëlle Cano, director of communications and sustainable development with Sobeys Quebec. In addition to its flagship Sobeys banner, Canada's second-largest food retailer also regroups 285 stores under its IGA and IGA Extra banners in Quebec. According to Cano, Quebec consumers anxiously await the annual strawberry season, much like they do with maple syrup. "Our food store employees are regularly asked at this time of year when the fresh local berries are going to arrive," said Cano. "Some people get frustrated but production isn't an exact science, it depends entirely on the weather. "We thought this contest would be a good way to have some fun while helping to raise people's awareness and interest." For Quebec growers, the contest is a welcome boost for their efforts to compete with imported berries, which are often sold at a discount in major Canadian supermarkets. "We're really happy and excited about it," said Yourianne Plante, general manager of the Quebec Association of Strawberry and Raspberry Growers. Its 600 members produce roughly 12,000 tonnes of fresh strawberries annually. That is roughly two-thirds of total Canadian production, and third largest in North America, after California and Florida. According to recent statistics from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian strawberry industry is worth more than $70 million. Considered by many Canadian consumers to be sweeter, more nutritious and more eco-friendly than rival imports, homegrown strawberries make up only about 15 percent of annual segment sales. "The U.S. accounted for 92 percent of those imports," reads a Nov. 2014 marketing report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  "This would equate to roughly 78 percent of total strawberries marketed in Canada in 2011." The report also notes that strawberry consumption in Canada reached 3.81 kgs in 2011, a 73-percent increase from a decade earlier. Plante credits that increase to the introduction of season-extending autumn strawberries and, in Quebec, the development of a Les Fraîches du Québec strawberry brand, and the creation of a central marketing board that notably sits down annually with major grocers like Sobeys, Loblaws and Metro to discuss and agree on everything from prices to promotions. Next week's contest is one of several promotional activities the growers' association is doing this year with grocers. Metro, for example, will be running strawberry-related recipes in its flyers. This fall, all three major chains will participate in a fall strawberry promotion involving celebrity chefs called La Prolongation (or Overtime). "We're trying to keep everyone on the same page," said Plante.  "We're working together to showcase what is really a star product here."

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