Strawberries of Summer: The Paulridge Berry Farm

Judith Huntress

The Paul family of Paulridge Berry Farm near Napanee.
Top row: Erin Paul, Scot Mundle, Elliot Mundle, and Luke Paul.
Bottom row: Julie Paul. Finlay Paul, Olivia Mundle, Ruth & Philip Paul.
Photo by Barry Lovegrove.
 
[This article appeared in the June/July 2013 issue of The SCOOP.]

A fifth-generation farm is a wonder in today’s world. Philip and Ruth Paul, their three children, and seven grandchildren, are part of the third, fourth, and fifth generations of Paulridge Farms. Philip’s grandfather Vernon began farming in the Centreville area before being attracted to better farming conditions for his family and cattle on land in the rolling countryside near Napanee in the early 1920s. Vernon had one son, Donald, who attended Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph in the late 1930s, and his wife had three sons, two of whom would grow to inherit Paulridge: Ralph and Philip.

Currently, there are four types of farming practiced at Paulridge Farms: the dairy farm and the produce farm are maintained by Philip’s brother Ralph, his wife Janice and their family. The berries and field crops are maintained by Philip and Ruth, and for thirty-five years they have grown and sold the summer berries beloved by so many in the area.

Ruth Wilbee Paul was also raised on her family’s farm in Brussels, Ontario. Her family loved music, and Ruth’s father had his own orchestra, the Ken Wilbee’s Orchestra, which played at dances throughout Southwestern Ontario in the late 1940s until the 1980s. Today her widowed father of 91 years still hears the dance music and recently celebrated the first anniversary for his second marriage. That too is a wonder.

Paulridge Berry Farm devotes sixteen of its 1000 total acres to growing berries; the remaining acreage is designated for field crops of soybeans and wheat. Strawberries take nine of the sixteen acres; purple raspberries grow on the remaining seven acres. The strawberry plants must be replaced every three years by new root stock and raspberries are dug up and replaced every five years. The first year of strawberry root stock life is not harvested so plants may develop strong roots and produce better fruit for the future. A raspberry plant’s fruit is ready to harvest two years from planting. When young strawberry plants produce blossoms in the first year, each blossom is cut off by hand and composted so plants will have more energy and nutrients for the coming year. A couple of new varieties are rotated into the fields each year.

Philip told me he uses “Solid Set Irrigation” to protect and sustain the berries, drawing water from two man-made ponds close to the fields. Portable metal pipes are annually set down between rows and they are not moved until late autumn. Spraying water at night is done when frost threatens the blossoms in early spring and during the summer’s excessive heat. “This type of irrigation has not yet failed us; we also mulch plants and rows with straw, winter and summer, to preserve moisture.”

He outlined the schedule for this year’s production. The winter straw has been removed from existing plants and new root stock was purchased and collected. At the end of April, the Pauls were preparing to plant two new strawberry root stocks and to place irrigation pipes between all the rows. Blossoms from the new plants will be removed by hand in May, and from the end of May until mid-June a staff of twenty part-time high school and college students will be hired to assist. They will help customers, weed, train runners and give tractor rides taking “pickers” to the fields. Some will also help in the sales area near the parking lot. 

Strawberries should be ready for sale by mid-June, weather permitting, and raspberries should appear in early to mid-July. “There are challenges for everything here,” said Philip. “There are no guarantees, but this year seems to be following a normal schedule.” Maintenance continues until fall when students return to school, and straw (as much as 200 bales per acre) is laid over the fields after the irrigation pipes are removed.

During our late spring-morning conversation, we were joined by Philip’s and Ruth’s eldest daughter Erin, a teacher in Belleville, her husband Dr. Scott Mundle (he designed their excellent web site paulridgeberryfarm.com), and their three young children. The Pauls’ son Ken and his wife Christine, maintain their own berry farm: Fruition Berry Farm, just north of Kingston, and their other daughter Julie, who is an oboist in the Kingston Symphony Orchestra and music teacher - all come in summer to help when things get busy.

Philip recalled that when he did summer work in the fields of a Simcoe, Ontario apple/berry farm while attending Ontario Agriculture College in Guelph in the 1970s, he had met Ruth, a University of Guelph Fine Arts and English graduate in 1971. Ruth laughed as she remembered how reluctant he was to tell her of his dream to return to Paul Ridge to farm. “That was a little bit of a surprise to me, but we loved one another and married that year.” In 1972 Philip graduated from Guelph with a degree in Horticulture and they moved to the Palace Road farm to begin their family. Janice (Ralph’s wife) also had young children, and we both wanted to stay at home and raise our kids. Together we came up with the idea of “a berry farm” and both our families worked together to make it happen. It has been a great and wonderful life and it’s been a privilege to be able to include everyone in this,” she said.

Philip told me that people came from the very beginning--many for “the farm experience”. They wanted to pick field berries for their fresher quality instead of buying them from supermarkets in town. Advertising was by word of mouth, telephone, radio announcements and The Beaver. “We were on a party line and during berry season we would sometimes receive hundreds of calls a week, inquiring about directions and hours; it became so busy we had to hire one person as a receptionist.”

Erin and her brother and sister are introducing 21st-century ideas such as an attractive and informative web site for marketing; diversification of crops, and future expansion plans. Erin said, “You could almost say berry picking is fashionable now. People want to meet the growers of their food and learn their planting methods. We don’t see individuals buying massive volumes of berries at once as in the past (for preserves, pies, etc.) but we are selling more berries than before for fresh consumption. I hope we can keep this family business growing.”

Ruth’s final words attest to the importance of buying/eating locally produced food. “I support the 100 Mile Diet--it’s a grand idea. People should support their local growers because it does help everyone. I’m concerned about how few full-time farmers are left; young people should understand how living on and from the land is a good life. By all working together, everything came together for us and we are grateful for our good fortune.”

Ruth & Philip Paul.

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