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Strawberry wars: The battle between local delights and global giants

Consumers face a tough choice between cheaper imported strawberries and the superior taste of local harvests
California farmers are exporting low-cost strawberries as far away as possible, with Canada being a key market.

As strawberry season commences across much of Canada, the onset of summer brings a vibrant display of nature’s bounty, offering consumers an array of fresh produce for the coming months. This is typically welcome news for consumers; however, this year presents unique challenges for our farmers.

California, having recovered from a severe multi-year drought, has seen a significant increase in water availability. Consequently, production is up for many commodities, including strawberries. USDA data reveals that California exported over 60 million pounds of strawberries outside the United States just a few weeks ago, and similar trends are expected for other produce such as cauliflower, broccoli, onions, peaches and lettuce. 

The end of California's drought has spurred a renaissance in North America's garden, leading to an oversupply of produce. As a result, prices are plummeting in the Golden State. To maintain profitability, California farmers are exporting low-cost strawberries as far away as possible, with Canada being a key market. 

READ: Canadian Grocer’s 2024 Produce Operations Survey

If the Canadian dollar maintains a favorable exchange rate against the American greenback, despite the Bank of Canada’s recent interest rate cut, Canadians should enjoy affordable produce in the near term. However, the influx of strawberries from California and Mexico is disrupting our own domestic strawberry season, typically a lucrative period for Canadian farmers. Currently, local strawberries in parts of the country are significantly more expensive, sometimes by 50% or more, making it understandable that consumers might opt for cheaper alternatives given recent food price trends. 

This situation presents a dilemma for consumers: choose between the more affordable, but less flavorful and fresh, imported strawberries or the more expensive, locally grown berries known for their superior taste and freshness. These are fundamentally different products; the imported berries are bred to endure long-distance transportation, ripening en route to Canada, while local berries offer immediate freshness. Consumers should anticipate facing this choice frequently this year.

In some regions, such as Ontario, local strawberries remain competitively priced due to market scale. However, in areas where local berries are more expensive, patience may be key. Waiting a week or so after the local harvest begins can lead to lower prices, allowing consumers to enjoy local produce without straining their budgets.

Price competition is just one challenge for Canadian farmers. California-based Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry producer, has partnered with farmers in Quebec and British Columbia to cultivate California-developed berries domestically. While plant science can be costly, this partnership aims to produce high-quality berries closer to home, enhancing logistical efficiency and adapting to climate change. The trade of agricultural products now includes the exchange of intellectual property and plant genetics, which can help farmers manage unpredictable weather patterns. 

However, the integration of California-developed genetics into Canadian farming raises concerns about preserving the unique taste and freshness of local berries. The scale of California-designed berry production may dominate the market, potentially diminishing the distinctiveness of Canada’s local berries.

Consumers desire variety, quality, and local produce. Yet, the concept of “local” is increasingly influenced by global factors. The intersection of local production and global trade highlights the complex dynamics shaping our food system today.

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