Cannon Conflict: Blueberry boom challenges farmers, worries neighbours

Industry looking to open markets overseas

  • Aug. 2, 2014 4:00 p.m.
Westberry Farms owner Parm Bains inspects blueberries at his Bateman Road packing plant.

Westberry Farms owner Parm Bains inspects blueberries at his Bateman Road packing plant.

Read part one of this series.

Read part two of this series, on the impact of neighbours and the needs of farmers.

Read part three of this series, on the alternatives to cannons.


Tyler OLSEN and Alex  BUTLER

One of the most important booms in the propane cannon debate actually doesn’t make a sound.

In the 1980s, around the time Parm Bains bought his Clayburn Road farm, there was concern among blueberry growers about how the local industry would handle rapidly increasing production.

British Columbia was producin g 20 million pounds of blueberries at the time.

“We thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s too much, we can’t handle it,’ ” Bains recalls.

Growers were worried the province was producing too many blueberries. Three decades later, industry watchers believe B.C. could produce 140 million pounds of blueberries in 2014, with Abbotsford accounting for around 40 per cent of that.

The rise has been so rapid that the Ministry of Agriculture website still cites 20 million pounds of production.

There is little sign that the growth is slowing, thanks in part to aggressive marketing of blueberries’ health benefits.

“It’s the ‘healthy halo’ that continues to derive the demand,” says Bains, noting B.C. could top the 200 million pound mark in just three years.

“There’s about 25,000-plus acres in the Valley and maybe 40 per cent are mature,” he said.  “So you have 60 per cent that are in different stages of maturity.”

But that huge growth worries those annoyed by propane cannons and farmers themselves.

Downes Road homeowner Merv Loewen said that every For Sale sign sparks anxiety among neighbours concerned that more blueberries will be planted and more propane cannons installed.

“They’re taking over land left and right to put in more blueberries,” he said.

The unchecked expansion also has the blueberry industry anticipating the day when more berries are being produced than the world wants.

A recent report on the industry co-sponsored by the federal and B.C. governments noted that growers were beginning to see prices drop due to increased production both at home and internationally.

“The current surplus of blueberries on the market has put downward pricing pressure on producers and is now limiting their ability to cover costs,” the authors write. “In addition to the challenge of selling product in a saturated market, B.C. blueberry growers … must contend with extremely high land costs and face ongoing rural/urban conflicts.” The report also cites the high cost of labour and difficulties recruiting seasonal workers.

Debbie Etsell, executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council, spent much of last week with buyers from Asia. As production expands locally, growers are looking to foreign markets to soak up the increased supply.

“We’re located quite well to do business with Asia,” Etsell said. Blueberries are already the province’s most exported fruit, but many markets remain untapped, including China, with whom negotiations are ongoing.

Etsell said growers are “largely optimistic” about the state of the industry, in large part because of those emerging markets. At the same time, she conceded some concern exists and growers would prefer to see the growth in production slow.

But that will only come from farmers deciding not to plant more blueberries.

“We can’t tell the grower don’t plant,” she said.

For Bains, the growth has brought opportunity. His farm began packaging their own berries in 1997 and he now oversees not only 100 acres of plants, but a large operation employing dozens of workers. The blueberry industry has grown into a marketing force that can sign large deals across the globe. Bains said that’s a good thing for all those who made the move “from dairy to berry,” as he put it. Whether that continues, he says, is a question for a crystal ball.

* * *

Resolving the cannon conflict:

As the controversy over propane cannons seems poised to grow with the increase of berry fields – and with no provincial appetite to back opponents’ call for a ban on the devices – the blasting will continue for the foreseeable future.

Without the use of cannons – protected under the provincial Right to Farm Act – some farmers feel their crops, along with their profits, may be decimated by the invasive starlings that feed on the berries.

The City of Abbotsford’s attempt at a bylaw to impose a list of restrictions on cannon use in the city was denied by the province, which indicated the proposal would effectively ban cannons. An attempt at a less stringent set of regulations failed on a tie vote.

Neighbouring Langley passed a bylaw for propane cannons that follows existing provincial guidelines, but makes additions such as registration fees, escalating fines and a minimum setback of 100 metres from all horse trails. But passing that local legislation also moved enforcement from the BC Blueberry Council to the city, which critics fear is simply downloading that responsibility without addressing the real issue of cannons – the noise.

As Abbotsford has been unable to find a solution through bylaws, the focus at city hall has shifted to managing the population of birds.

South of the border, Whatcom County has been operating a starling management program for almost 20 years. The program has an annual budget of $30,000, paid by farmers and the county. It employs methods including trapping, baiting, poisoning, introducing predators, and reducing roosting opportunities. In the Okanagan-Similkameen region, a large-scale program has captured almost 500,000 birds from 2003 to 2012. That effort costs about $115,000 a year, to which the two regional districts contribute $25,000.

Abbotsford city staff acknowledge that a program by the city alone, without help from around the region, would have little effect on the local bird population.

Coun. Patricia Ross said the issue was discussed at a recent meeting of the Fraser Valley Regional District, where the board of directors instructed staff to research the idea, with the intention that municipalities, districts and stakeholders would be involved as partners and pay into the program.

Etsell said a few years ago the blueberry council had hired a contractor to look at a pilot program for starling management, “and at that time there was not any support from different regions or anything.”

She added that now there are new discussions about a program – with Abbotsford as the most vocal stakeholder – “but the project is much bigger than that and takes more bodies than just Abbotsford.”

Etsell added that starlings will never be eradicated, so a management program “is another tool in the toolbox. This is not a singular solution, this is another part of the solution to a big problem.”

Darryl Plecas, MLA for Abbotsford-South, said he has been working on ways to address the problem posed by cannons by bringing stakeholders together, including neighbours, farmers, and industry representatives, to look for viable solutions.

In his view, the answer may come in the form of drones – small, remote-controlled aircraft – which must be easy to use and come at a low cost.

“We’re fairly confident that the use of drones will be cheaper. It’s nowhere near what you think it will cost – and it’s very effective.”

He said he has been working with a group to test the airborne devices, adding that he thinks once they can demonstrate success in Abbotsford “then we will be able to go … and get some help from the ministry of agriculture to roll this thing out.”

Plecas said while many neighbours push for an all-out ban, with a viable alternative “the bylaws and all the other efforts is a non-issue.”

He said the the best solution is to find some middle ground – meaning that the key is to find a viable, inexpensive alternative that can render cannons unnecessary.