Slow start to crops: Unseasonal weather brings uncertainty

It doesn’t seem to matter which farmer you ask. This has been the coldest and wettest spring Fraser Valley growers have ever seen.

Henk Onnink says cold

Henk Onnink says cold

It doesn’t seem to matter which farmer you ask. This has been the coldest and wettest spring Fraser Valley growers have ever seen.

The Abbotsford Airport recorded 300 mm of rain between April 1 and May 31, or 36 per cent above normal.

The result is at least a two-week delay in planting fruits and vegetables, which means berries that are usually ripening this time of year are still green.

“It’s been very wet, slow ripening with too much rain,” said Henk Onnink, who has a blueberry farm on Downes Road, west of 304 Street.

Onnink has been growing berries for 30 years, but this year they’re two to three weeks late.

He said the excessively wet spring has helped the berries to grow, but without sun they don’t sweeten.

Blueberries accounted for 56 per cent of Canada’s 280,000-acre fruit crop in 2010, with the Lower Fraser Valley producing 99 per cent of the B.C. crop.

Normally, the picking would start in early July, but Onnink said the problem isn’t limited to just blueberry growers.

Strawberries usually ripen earlier than other fruits, but Devinder Maan said she began picking just last Sunday, 10 days later than usual.

Maan Farms, located on McKenzie Road south of the highway, has been growing strawberries since 1977 and this is the worst year.

And because there were few sunny days in the spring it was difficult to figure out when to plant. That brings a level of uncertainty as to how the berries will fare.

“One field looks promising, but as for the other field, time will tell,” she said.

B.C.’s fruit crop is a boon for Fraser Valley agriculture, generating $276 million in revenue last year according to Statistics Canada, cornering 42 per cent of the entire Canadian market.

But growers are optimistic and the fields look good, says Sharmin Gamiet of the Fraser Valley Strawberry Growers Association.

“If the weather continues like this, it’s going to be a fabulous crop,” she said, admitting the berries are a couple of weeks late.

“If the crop ripens slowly, like it is right now, it’s going to be a good crop. The challenge for us is if it gets suddenly hot and dry.”

In his 10 years of farming blueberries, Kerry Seale of Blueberry Junction has never seen bees pollinating blueberry flowers into late June.

He expects to have a 20 per cent reduction in his berry crop, and doesn’t expect his berries to ripen until mid-July to the first week of August.

“I know it’s hard to believe but the earliest blueberries from Chilliwack would actually be available around the first of July because the [Abbotsford Berry] festival is normally that weekend. This year we’ll be lucky to have strawberries for the Abbotsford Festival,” he said.

Seale said the eastern end of the Fraser Valley actually gets a bit more sun and heat and yields earlier blueberries, which is why Chilliwack usually gets the jump on Abbotsford.

It isn’t just berry farmers that have been affected by cold and wet weather. Peter Schouten of Heppell’s Potato Corp. is coming off the soggiest September in his 17 years as a farm owner.

The fall was so wet that it wiped out the crops of many potato farmers in the Lower Mainland.

The largest producer in Abbotsford, he plants 650 acres of potatoes on Sumas Prairie and lost about 30 per cent of it last year, roughly $2 million.

“We need some heat to make up for the time we’ve lost and that pushes us back later into fall which makes us a little worried,” he said.

“It’s not so much just that we’re delayed two weeks. The crop that is growing is delayed two weeks, but we have a gap in planting of almost 40 days, which is unheard of.”

Potato farmers like to start planting every other day or week from February to late May. But non-stop rains this spring meant Schouten couldn’t plant his crops for over a month, so when it comes time to deliver to market he might just come up empty-handed.

“There were a couple of days where we just planted 48 hours straight. We just had two shifts of crews going and we hired everybody we could hire.”

Peter Guichon of Felix Farms, a 57-year-old four-generation farmer, echoes the comments of everybody else.

“Wettest, coolest spring I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen nothing like it. My dad’s 86 years old and he says the same thing.”

Guichon runs Felix Farms with three brothers and a sister, making it the largest vegetable farm in the province. They lost 70 per cent of their potato crop last fall.

Although the rain delayed planting for potato farmers, the real make-or-break will be based on precipitation in September and October.

If they have another fall like last year it would put a lot of farmers out of business for good, Guichon said.

But Seale said so long as food prices don’t rise too quickly, most people won’t notice.

“To the average individual they might just say, gee, I’m not eating blueberries as early as last year and that’s as far it goes,” he said.