Fungus threatens strawberry crop

Norwegians are fiercely proud of their locally grown strawberries, which have a firm place on summer tables, but berry growers are warning this year of the worst crisis ever to hit their crops. A fungus that started infecting plants in the southern counties of Agder is now moving north, and threatening to ruin the strawberry season.

This is how the Norwegian farmers' organization likes to picture Norwegian strawberries, but this year, nearly half the crop has been spoiled by a fungus that leaves the berries rotting in the field. PHOTO: Norges Bondelag

This is how the Norwegian farmers’ organization likes to picture Norwegian strawberries, but this year, nearly half the crop has been spoiled by a fungus that leaves the berries rotting in the field. PHOTO: Norges Bondelag

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Roger Utengen, a director of major fruit and vegetable wholesaler Bama, told news bureau NTB over the weekend. “There has never been so much damage to the strawberry crop as what we’re seeing right now.”

Utengen said Bama has lost at least 40 percent of the berries it had planned to sell nationwide this summer, and that will have major consequences for producers and retailers.

Norway’s agriculture directorate is also well aware of the problem but can’t confirm it’s as bad as Bama claims. “It’s bad, but we’ve had bad years before also,” Lasse Erdal of the directorate’s market and price development section told NTB.

Demand for strawberries is high in Norway all year, but it’s when the Norwegian berries hit the market that it really takes off. The local berries are viewed as sweeter and tastier than imported strawberries, and Norwegians are willing to pay dearly for them in June. By July, the prices are supposed to be coming down as supply increases.

Not this year. Berries were still selling for around NOK 40 (nearly USD 5) a basket over the weekend and Utengen doesn’t think that will fall. The supply has simply been hit too hard by the fungus known as gråskimmelsopp, which leaves a grey scum on berries that then quickly rot.

Farmers first started noticing it in Agder and Rogaland on the West Coast, where it’s now wiped out more than half the crops. Crews of berry pickers have been spending most of their time picking away the rotten berries in an effort to save others.

Bama Rogaland has delivered 244 fewer tons of berries this year than last. Some producers have lost 95 of their crop. Norway’s largest farmers’ organization and lobby group, Bondelaget, worries that the fungus is a result of a rainy pre-season but also that it has become resistant to the “normal” pesticides sprayed on berries.

“The situation is serious for various producers and it will have major consequences for growers if this is a resistance problem,” Lars Petter Bartnes stated on the organization’s website. Farmers often receive state compensation for crops lost to weather problems, but not for fungus attacks, he said, urging insurance companies, the industry and the state to jointly finance a study of resistance patterns and find the cause of this year’s fungus.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund