Reward outweighs challenges

Jason Smith, blueberry grower from Abbotsford, B.C., is also chair of the B.C. Blueberry Council.  |  Barbara Duckworth photo

ABBOTTSFORD, B.C. — Like most farmers at the end of May, Jason Smith was scanning the skies for rain.

Smith, who grows 15 acres of blueberries, is chair of the British Columbia Blueberry Council and runs an agronomy consulting business that works with farmers in the Abbotsford area.

For him, it is all about growing quality fruit.

“You want to make sure every time a consumer buys a unit of blueberries, that their take-away message after eating it is a positive one so you get those return buys,” he said.

“There is more pressure to produce the most fruit and best quality you can. So there are a lot of issues you have to pay attention to.”

The first blueberries in the Fraser Valley were planted in 1949. Smith’s grandfather was among the first to adopt the new crop, which already had good success in the Richmond, B.C., area.

Farmers have learned that weather, geography and soil type affect berry colour, flavour, size and yield. Research is ongoing to find new varieties best suited to the region.

The main variety is Duke, a sweet, good-sized berry with a longer shelf life. Elliot is a late season variety, and more is being planted to supply the Canadian market with British Columbia berries throughout the summer.

The blueberry, strawberry and raspberry industries have established a B.C. breeding program to develop varieties for the area.

“Duke has worked well, but a lot of the other cultivars that have worked well in other areas do not work well here,” Smith said.

Bluejay is a prolific variety in Oregon, but has struggled to grow five tonnes an acre in B.C.

“If something comes along that is going to be better than Duke, I am going to look at it,” he said.

He has planted trial rows to see how they produce before he starts a major replanting program.

He gets yields of 13 to 15 tonnes per acre, but some varieties are even more prolific.

He expects high yields and wants a variety that withstands a machine harvester. Berries for the fresh market are picked by hand, but that sector struggles as labour shortages increase.

The industry employs foreign workers for field work, harvest and processing facilities, although he has not hired any on his farm.

When he was a boy, his family farm had 150 hand harvesters working every day beside the machine pickers.

They get about three harvests a season.

Growing good berries is a year-round job.

Pollination, fertilization and pruning are critical.

Alberta beekeepers supply hives to pollinate the crop, and Smith has been encouraging bumblebees to nest on his farm by planting flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season.

The common practice is to use two hives per acre, but he sets out four or more hives per acre to ensure good coverage. Each hive costs about $100 per month, and he may need them for two months.

The bushes are planted in long rows and are pruned every winter.

Irrigation pipes are raised about half a metre from the ground, and the water drips to the soil without touching the leaves and fruit.

It can cost more than $3,000 per acre to install pipes and pumps.

“Drip irrigation is great, but it is not the same as rain,” he said.

The fields are covered with nets suspended about five metres above the groves. These keep out birds and provide some hail protection.

Post-harvest weather has been warm and dry in recent years.

“In 2012, it was so warm and dry the plants did not shut down properly. That damage was not noticed until after bloom when the fruit was sizing,” he said.

The weather typically cools slowly and the plants harden off and go dormant so that trees can be pruned of dead and unproductive branches.

“The new growth I get this year is where my fruit will be for my next crop,” he said.

He collects tissue cultures from leaves after harvest to make sure there is adequate nutrition for the plants.

Input costs plague all 800 B.C. growers.

“Costs have risen, but the return to growers has not risen. I am getting paid the same as I was 20 plus years ago,” he said. “The growers’ costs are going up and if you are not producing the best, top quality berry because there is so much out there, the packer doesn’t have to accept your fruit.”

Producers expanded rapidly in the last 10 to 15 years, but that appears to have slowed as growers establish themselves. Land is expensive in this region.

“If I was a new grower and had to go to the bank and get a mortgage to buy 10 acres, 10 acres of bare land is worth about $90,000 an acre,” he said.

“It costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per acre in planting costs.”

There is no income until the third year of establishment, and the grower needs to make sure a packer is willing to accept the fruit.

Twenty-nine private packers in the area buy fruit for the fresh, frozen and processed markets for juice, jams, syrups and pie filling.

Every farm needs to be food safety certified through Canada GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), a third party inspection service for fruit and vegetables.

Food safety includes practices such as water testing throughout the season because there is a potential for contamination. A grower who uses an untreated surface water source must make sure it doesn’t come in contact with the fruit.

Some farms could be subjected to three or four auditors, depending on what the processor needs or what an export market requires.

“I know it is farming, but it is almost like you can’t just go out and work with the plants anymore,” he said.

“It is not about just growing the crop, it is about so many other things. Record keeping is a huge part of farming now to track everything for food safety and traceability,” he said.

Nevertheless, blueberries have grown in popularity because they are considered a healthy food.

“There is more and more positive health research coming,” he said.

“Blueberries have a lot of good things going for it, great flavour, a product that stores well frozen or fresh and it is so versatile.”

He still gets pleasure out of a being a regular blueberry consumer.

“Eating a bowl of frozen blueberries with vanilla almond milk is great,” he said.

Blueberry facts

  • Blueberries from high and low bush production are the number one fruit crop exported from Canada. The primary export markets are the United States, Japan, India and most recently, China and South Korea.
  • In 2015, 65 million pounds were exported.
  • B.C. growers produced 110 million pounds in 2013, 152 million pounds in 2014 and 172 million pounds last year.

Source: British Columbia Blueberry Council, Statistics Canada

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