Saturday, July 13, 2024

Strawberry fields not forever

Picard’s U-Pick closes after 26 years

Michael Picard loves farming because he gets to witness life blossoming right in front of his eyes.
“It’s really something to watch stuff grow,” he told THE EQUITY over the phone last week, only days after he made the difficult decision to close his U-pick strawberry farm after 26 years in business.
Picard began his farming career growing tobacco, but by the mid-90s the model was no longer viable.
In 1998 he re-opened his Charteris farm, just north of Shawville on Highway 303, as Michael Picard’s Strawberry Farm, and it quickly became a community favourite.
For many Pontiacers, late June meant strawberry season, and strawberry season meant a trip to Picard’s U-pick farm.
Customers came to pick berries for use in jams, jellies, pies and preserves.
At its peak, Picard’s farm had over 200 rows of strawberry plants, but this year he had to cut that number to 90.
Over the past few years, increasing costs, staff shortages and a changing climate made it tougher for him to stay in business.
Last week, yet another frost decimated many of the 90 plants he had remaining. With an ailing crop and no staff for the season, he decided he would have to close the operation altogether.
“The last couple years I’ve been looking at it and saying ‘How much longer can I keep this going?’ and when the crop didn’t work out for me I just thought ‘Well, maybe I’ll call it quits,’” he said.
Picard said it’s been getting harder to run a strawberry farm for a number of reasons.
First of all, unpredictable temperatures made it tough for the plants to survive.
“We’ve had some seasons where the frost goes down to minus four or minus five,” he explained.
He also said the costs of operating the business have gotten too high, noting the prices of fuel, diesel, fertilizers, and strawberry plants have become unmanageable.
Picard has also had a hard time finding workers. Last year, he placed ads in local newspapers and around town, but not a single application came in.
He said even though he pays well — $20 an hour — it’s difficult to attract workers because he can only offer limited hours. Some of his former employees, he said, have gone on to work at Giant Tiger because they get more hours.
He was never able to hire foreign workers because his operation wasn’t large enough to qualify for those government programs.
Picard said there are not many strawberry farms left in the area. If you’re in the Pontiac, the pickings are slim.
“You have to go to Valu-Mart or Giant Tiger,” he said, adding that people looking for the freshest berries will likely have to travel to Aylmer
Picard decided to close down last week, so he’s taking some time to figure out what’s next for him.
He said although he’s going to miss the farming, he’s especially going to miss the people. He said even though he’s not good with names, he enjoyed talking with his customers.
“I want to thank them,” he said.