by Neil Corbett and Kelvin Gawley
Blueberries have flourished for 20 years in the Fraser Valley, but concern is growing among farmers, and some are selling their farms.
The problem, some growers say, is that while their berries sell for $2.99 per pound in the grocery store, their share of that might be as little as 55 cents.
Hardeep Gill recently sold his blueberry farm in Abbotsford, and calls himself a “big victim” of the pricing system he says is failing many farmers.
He said they don’t know how much they can expect to receive for their crops. He got anywhere from $1.50 to 55 cents per pound, but was always forced to take whatever he could get.
“You don’t have any say – you have to get rid of the fruit before it gets soft,” he said.
At the lower end of the scale, he was not even covering his operating costs.
Devinder Brar is on the executive of the B.C. Blueberry Growers Association, which represents about 300 farmers and formed four years ago primarily to get fair prices for farmers.
“Prices dropped, and we were getting hammered,” Brar said.
He explained that in 2010 and 2011, many blueberry producers saw returns of $1.60 per pound.
“We were very happy. But now processors and brokers control the whole industry,” said Brar.
“It is a big issue. If you get 60 cents [per pound] for your berries, and your cost is 90, how will you survive?”
He said some farmers are forced to wait most of a year before they get paid for their crops in the present model.
Gary Purewal is a Pitt Meadows producer and packer who agrees that farmers have a legitimate complaint.
“Some marketers low-balled, selling at a very low price before the season even began,” Purewal said.
As packers, they supply 15 million pounds of blueberries each year, growing about 6.5 million on their farms, and purchasing the rest.
He said they were able to offer farmers $1.05 to $1.10 per pound.
B.C. blueberries have been a major crop, with well-promoted health benefits, he said. Production was 172 million pounds last year. Now the challenge is fairly dividing the profits.
Brar said his group will advocate, and hopes to achieve some price certainty for next season.
He said producers expect government leadership and more help from the B.C. Blueberry Council.
Debbie Etsell, executive director of the council, said the pricing issue is complex, and her group is not a marketing board, and does not oversee the blueberry producers’ business deals.
There are different prices available to farmers, depending on the quality of their crop, and whether it is sold for the fresh or frozen market.
“There has been incredible growth in production, and when there’s an increase in supply, certain things happen.”
She said the law of supply and demand driving prices down is one of the factors that may be at play, and said blueberry production is ramping up in the U.S., South America, Europe and Asia.
According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’s annual report for 2014-2015, world production hit one billion pounds in 2014, but may still climb to an estimated 1.7 billion as soon as 2019.
Local farmers have also been forced to sell their fresh produce at the same time as their North American competitors in recent years.
Traditionally, Fraser Valley berries have been the last to mature on the continent but warmer weather in June and July has caused them to be ready at the same time as other regions, according to berry specialist and University of the Fraser Valley professor Tom Bauman.
“On the fresh market, we’re clashing with all the fruit from Michigan, from New Jersey and Washington and Oregon …,” he said.
Another factor hurting local blueberry producers has been a recent recovery of the Canadian dollar, said Bauman.
“The lower the Canadian dollar, the more we actually make because we ship most of it into the U.S.”
But there is promise in the opening of new Asian markets for Fraser Valley blueberries, according to Bauman.
A new deal has been struck between the Canadian and Chinese governments to reduce import fees and make the flow of fruit to the country easier and more economical.
The province says B.C. blueberry growers could be looking at the potential of up to $65 million in exports a year, once the agreement is fully implemented.
– With files from Tyler Olsen, Abbotsford News