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Ontario eyes variety development for future grapes

August 17, 2020

Ontario is just starting production on its grape crop.

At Ontario Fresh Grape Growers in St. Catharines, ON, it’s beginning harvest on its 350-acre Sovereign Coronation blue grape crop. “It’s starting about a week earlier than last year,” says Sarah Marshall of Ontario Tender Fruit/Fresh Grape Growers. “Last year was a very rainy and cool season overall and this year, the heat units and lack of rain are just crazy. It was a very hot and dry July and so far in August, quite hot and dry as well.”

Marshall notes that the dry conditions will likely result in a decrease in overall volume. Yet, lots of sun and heat have other benefits. “With that comes increased sugars,” she says. “The Sovereign Coronation is a sweet-tart grape and it’s got a unique flavor profile. I think the sugars will be quite a lot higher this year because of the heat and dry conditions.”

Harvest generally wraps up in four to six weeks, sometimes eight depending on sales and the size of the crop. “But with a down crop, I think it’ll be a shorter harvest-selling cycle this year,” says Marshall.

Ontario labor challenges
What is challenging with the harvest this year is labor due to COVID-19. “There have been reductions across many farms in the availability of labor so that has an impact and a lot of stress on growers. We use a lot of the seasonal agricultural workers and there have been a lot of late arrivals or no arrivals,” says Marshall, noting its labor comes in from Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago. “It’s a Canadian-first program for labor but it’s a short-term tough job so we rely heavily on this program.”

All this considered, Marshall is hoping for slightly higher pricing this season.

Looking ahead, Ontario Fresh Grape Growers are also working on developing new varieties of grapes to grow in Ontario in partnership with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and funding through a federal Agriscience Program grant. “We’re experimenting with some Spanish varieties. Coronation is a blue grape so we’re trying to expand into seedless red and green grapes,” says Marshall. “We’re constantly getting new varieties into the ground and we have to see if they’re winter hardy because we get really cold winters here. So we need several years of data collection to see if they’ll survive the winters, if they’re grower friendly, what the yields are like, etc. It’s a 10-15 plus year process.”

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