Berry farm has fruitful summer

Karen Wells
Published on August 13, 2014

The largest water storage area as part of the Campbellton Berry Farm irrigation system was down by almost two feet (as of Aug. 7). Philip Thornley said much more depletion of the water and they wouldn’t have been able to use it anymore. Look to the slideshow section of the website for more photos from the farm.

Karen Wells photo

CAMPBELLTON — While the temperatures in the high 30 degree range and extreme ultraviolet rays had many of us seeking shade for most of July, the crops at the Campbellton Berry Farm were soaking it all up.

The Pilot dropped by the farm last week to find out from owner/operator Philip Thornley how he managed his crops during the drought-like conditions that prevailed for almost three weeks. The weather turned off to cloud and then rain around Wednesday of last week.

Thornley has been cultivating his 200 acre property for the past 40 years into an ideal example of a berry farm done right. A big part of that work included the creation of a system of ditches and ponds to form an irrigation system. Without a significant source of water, Thornley knew that had to be a priority.

“I can remember going back to the early ‘80s when we had similar summers and that’s when we were building a big part of the irrigation system,” he recalled. “We said then that we have to make sure we have enough water to cover three weeks in July when we have droughts.

“We’ve been through a bunch of years where this heat wasn’t so common, but it’s been an old-fashioned summer after an old-fashioned winter.”


Irrigation or watering of plants is vital to any farm. Too much or too little can have negative consequences on the crops.

“Without this irrigation system it would have been a different story,” said Thornley. “We would have been desperate for water.”

Even with the irrigation system, Thornley said Mother Nature is still in the drivers seat. The farms main water supply is down by two feet and it couldn’t take much more use. It couldn’t be used until it was dry. The rain, which started in showers last Thursday, should help that situation.

“There’s limits on it of course. Once we run out of water in our irrigation system we are at the whim of Mother Nature.”

This holds especially true of the strawberry plants at the farm. An underground drip irrigation system is used for watering their roots. The planting beds are covered in a plastic that prevents water from getting in. This system allows for more precise control of the watering.

The heat came at a good time for the 15 fields of strawberries. If it’s too cold in the spring the blossoms will be negatively impacted and if it’s too hot for two many days during the growing season the plants will go dormant. They did lose some plants this way, but the irrigation of the strawberry plants helped produce a great crop of red, juicy strawberries. Thornley explained that the sun and heat help strawberries produce sugars, which made this crop a winner with u-pick customers. Another bonus to the good weather, more people coming out to pick the berries of course.

Strawberries are a difficult crop to manage because they are perennial and you have to carry them through the winter.

“They (plants) are the boss,” he said. “They tell us what they want, but we have to listen. If they are showing signs of wilting or have small, stunted plants, then they are calling out for help.”

With the strawberry season already over, raspberry season was in full swing on the farm last week, and should continue this week and then taper off. There’s a bumper crop of raspberries that have also responded well to the old-fashioned summer conditions. Thornley’s only concern there was if the rain that was expected over the weekend came it would knock the ripe fruit from the canes.

He is optimistic heading into the upcoming season for plums and blackberries in September. Then it’s damsons and pumpkins in October, along with plans for a fun corn maze to celebrate the fall season — a first for the farm.



Thornley said there are some things that are simply beyond their control when it comes to farming, such as the weather.

“We have to acknowledge that, but it means that if we are going to grow food in Newfoundland, we’ve got to say there’s going to be times when things are poor, and are we going to support farmers during their poor years or are we just going to say, ‘Tough luck buddy’.

“If you expect fruit every year then farmers are going to need the support and mechanisms to put all those controls in place. Without that sort of investment we will be constantly bumping along just trying to manage.”

In closing Thornley said, “The reason there’s less than one per cent of the population in farming is there’s simply no money in it. If we valued farming as much as we value cars and gasoline, there wouldn’t be a problem. But we don’t value our food.”