Wet, warm weather a shocker for strawberries

2 February 2022

Words by Kristine Walsh

First published in the February 2022 issue of the NZGrower.

After a season of wet weather and humidity, Manutuke grower Kristine Peck is letting her strawberry patch ‘rest’ while she gears up for next season. Picture by Kristine Walsh.

Having planted strawberries in early June, Gisborne grower Kristine Peck was selling fruit by mid-October and anticipating a busy period leading up to Christmas and beyond. 

Then the rains came. And they came and they came until, by early December, she had announced her season was pretty much over. 

“The strawberries were just waterlogged and though we tried to keep the crop clean by plucking damaged fruit, we just couldn't keep in front of it,” Kristine says. 

“They do keep flowering so can produce right through to the end of February, but at some point you just have to decide whether it is worth going on with.” 

With just 10,000 strawberry plants on a portion of her 12-hectare property, Kristine is a small grower but has produced consistently good weights since her late husband, Richard, decided they would do well in the silt loam soil at their Manutuke site. 

The couple picked their first crop in 2006 and even since Richard died five years ago, Kristine has managed to market her crop through a range of outlets – whole; through her popular pick-your-own days and in the fresh fruit ice creams she whips up at her store, Sundays, in the centre of Gisborne. 

This last season though has been her most challenging to date. 

“Our problems in previous years have been around getting reliable labour but this season's wet weather and humidity was something else,” she says. “It wasn't just that they were waterlogged, it was the bugs that brings with it and though we've always controlled bugs with traps, this year we just couldn't.” 

Kristine grows the early-fruiting Camarosa variety which is generally in full cry by Christmas, with production decreasing over the next month or two. 

“Not this season though,” Kristine says. “Keeping the plants clean means we may yet get more fruit but honestly, this year I'd be happy just to break even.” 

Kristine says she does love the fruit and is not giving up on it yet, though she's considering installing some under tunnel houses for protection. 

“Everything grows like mad here but the strawberries do particularly well and people love the flavour they get,” she says. “That's the really rewarding part… the look on people's faces when they come to get their 'Manutuke strawberries.' 

“And as growers, we're always optimistic that next season will be better.” 

Like Kristine Peck, growers around the country have reported losing crops due to weather events, which led to a shortage at Christmas… pavlova season. 

Strawberry Growers New Zealand chairman Anthony Rakich says that as few have their crops under cover, weather events are an ongoing risk.  

“The number growing under cover is increasing but it is still small, so when we have a wet spring, as we did, it makes for a tough start to the season,” says Anthony. 

Anthony lost around 60 percent of his family orchard’s pre-Christmas crop on Danube Orchards in Whenuapai, northwest of Auckland. 

“In many places those wet, humid conditions continued so that gave them little chance to recover,” he says. 

In major strawberry regions around Auckland and nearby Waikato, growers endured four weeks of non-stop spring rain, followed by heat and even more rain. 

“By the end of November we already had issues with quality, and the warmth and humidity just added to that,” says Anthony. “Through all that prices stayed strong – probably because many growers were having the same issues – but that's not really what we want. We want to see good volumes right up to and beyond Christmas so we are able to serve the market.” 

The best case scenario would be to have both high volumes and strong prices, he says. 

“We are like everybody else in that our labour costs are high and getting higher and we have to address that somehow.” 

A fourth-generation strawberry grower, Anthony was picking into mid-January but said the season was almost over, about a month earlier than usual. 

While his fruit has traditionally thrived in the outdoor hydroponic environment created for them, he, like Kristine, is also considering investing in covered houses. 

“This year, though, we just have to accept that with continued heat and rain, this is not going to be our best season.”