Abbotsford – While the BC blueberry harvest has only just begun, BC’s growers are struggling to salvage their crop. The industry is facing significant challenges due to poor weather conditions and a shortage in labour.
An Unprecedented Year
Cool and wet weather conditions have impacted crop development. Due to pollination and other weather-related issues, crop volumes are anticipated to be down significantly from approximately 200 million pounds in 2019. Some fields are also flooded due to seepage from the Fraser River and excessive rain. These wet conditions make it difficult to get picking machines in the fields.
“It’s a tough season following a tough year,” notes BC blueberry grower Jason Smith of Fraser Berry Farms. “Yields are definitely down, but it is hard to say by how much at this point. I am also concerned there could be issues with the quality of the fruit from the excessive rainfall,” he continues.
With more than 25,000 acres in production, the need for labour is tremendous, and the pandemic has had a significant impact on labour availability. The reduction in workforce appears to be more than 50%, particularly for handpicking. The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has been cited as playing a role in the decision of workers to remain home. The situation is causing growers to feel worried for their livelihood.
The market for frozen blueberries is less likely to be impacted by labour issues as berries for IQF (individually quick frozen) are mainly machine harvested. The impact will be on fresh blueberry availability.
Parm Bains, president of Westberry Farms, states, “In all my years I have never seen a year like this. To have bad weather plus this labour shortage and COVID is not something we have ever had to face,” he notes. “Where possible we are trying to share workers and resources, and we are trying to support our growers who cannot find anyone to pick. With people not wanting to work because of CERB or concerns about the virus, plus fewer seasonal agriculture workers, the industry is really struggling. All we can do is realize we are all in this together, and do our best to help each other, but it is really tough.”
Government Called on to Assist
So far, most of the programs announced by the provincial and national governments to address the pandemic’s impact have been ineffective in addressing blueberry grower’s needs. The berry industry has recommended to the federal government to remove the $1000 limit cap on CERB to provide an incentive for people to come out and help with berry picking. This would support the government’s Step Up to the Plate – Help feed Canadians campaign.
Demand Remains Strong
Meanwhile, even though production is down, it is encouraging to see that the demand remains strong for blueberries and U-pick farms are busy (under their new COVID-19 safety restrictions). Retailers, farmer’s markets, and restaurants are incorporating fresh BC blueberries on menus and shelves and the industry is grateful for the support of the trade and public at a time when they need it most.
As of now, early variety blueberries are available and then more varieties follow through the summer, until the season winds down into September. Running until August 3, 2020 is a special promotion for fresh BC Blueberries called Go Blue BC. Learn more at www.gobluebc.com
About the BC Blueberry Council
British Columbia’s pure waters, clean air, rich soils, and moderate climate create perfect growing conditions for blueberries, making BC one of the largest highbush blueberry-growing regions in the world, and blueberries Canada’s number one small fruit export. Producing an average of 160 million lbs annually, British Columbia’s highbush blueberry industry ranks among the top five world producers.
The BC Blueberry Council represents more than 600 highbush blueberry growers in British Columbia. The Council’s vision is a sustainable blueberry industry that consistently delivers delicious, top quality blueberries to the world. This is achieved through promotions, research, and providing grower support.
Learn more at www.BCblueberry.com