Kind of Blue

Has the once-hot blueberry – the cancer-fighting miracle fruit and one of B.C.’s top crops – become a victim of its own success?

Has the once-hot blueberry – the cancer-fighting miracle fruit and one of B.C.’s top crops – become a victim of its own success?

Whoever said you can’t have too much of a good thing wasn’t talking to the folks who grow blueberries in this province. In the past few years, farmers producing B.C.’s highest-revenue fruit crop ($120 million in 2008) have seen prices soar, then crater. While producers here have been beaten up by the weather, production worldwide has escalated to the point where it now exceeds demand; warehouses holding frozen berries are bursting at the seams.

Paul Gill is only too aware of what’s going on in the world of blueberries. On a cool, sunny day in early April, he is looking over one of his family’s neatly groomed berry fields in the Cloverdale Valley and out beyond that to the horizon and Mount Baker. Spring, he says, is late – again. The buds on the berry bushes are still tight. The previous April he had been hit hard by frost – twice – and lost a lot of his early crop. The harvest in 2008 was 40 per cent of his average.

So why should we care? After all, a blueberry is a blueberry, whether it comes from Chile or Cloverdale. Gill says, first of all, local produce is fresher when it hits our tables. But more importantly, we have to ask, “Do we want agriculture to be a sustainable part of British Columbia?” If producers such as Gill – whose family farms 73 hectares and is in the top fifth of B.C. blueberry producers – lose their gamble, we will end up relying on foreign food suppliers.

This year Gill hedged his bet. He installed three huge towers down one side of this particular field. They look like windmills, except the propellers are driven by diesel engines. The idea is to suck warm air down and onto the plants to reduce the possibility of frost damage. The barn is filled with modern machinery, including a conveyor belt that can be set up to sort berries by size, colour and softness. All the high-tech equipment makes farming very different from what his family experienced when they first settled here 30 years ago.

When his dad, Mohinder, bought this first piece of property back in 1979, the 13 hectares were overgrown with bush and the farmhouse and barn were broken down. He was just one of the many immigrants from the Punjab who settled in this area; most could trace farming in their families back 10 generations. Indo-Canadian families now dominate blueberry farming in the Fraser Valley. Mohinder planted his first blueberries a year after buying the property as part of a variety of crops, including strawberries and an assortment of vegetables. And there were chickens, which produced eggs.

B.C. Ministry of Agriculture berry-industry specialist Mark Sweeney says that, at the time the Gills came to the area, Cloverdale was the truck farm for the Lower Mainland, providing it with fresh vegetables. But that changed because of competition from California. Driven by that economic force, farmers such as the Gills eventually shifted to berries, including strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, then, finally, to only blueberries – specifically high-bush blueberries, which arrived here in the early 1900s from New Jersey (still a major producer). Ninety-five per cent of all the high-bush blueberries grown in Canada are found in the Fraser Valley. These domesticated plants frequently grow six feet tall, unlike the low-bush varieties grown back east, from Ontario through Quebec and the Maritimes, where those berries are frequently marketed as “wild.”

What really changed the industry wasn’t the technology but what Paul Gill calls the blueberry’s “health halo.” About a decade ago, scientists determined that the antioxidants that blueberries have in abundance produce a possible health benefit in cancer prevention. The whole world took notice: pastures were plowed up and less profitable crops were plowed under. It was an agricultural frenzy.
“We were planting, planting, planting,” says Sweeney. This was taking place not just in North America, where the bulk of blueberries is still grown. From China to Chile, berry bushes were going into the ground. In 2005 there were 29,000 hectares under cultivation in North America. By 2008 that number was up by a third, to 38,000 hectares. During that time, Chile jumped from 2,000 hectares to 14,000 hectares.

As demand for this miracle fruit grew, prices spiked. And in response to those rising costs, Gill says, manufacturers started to change their products. Blueberry juice was reconfigured into “blueberry cocktail,” with more grape juice and fewer blueberries. The percentage of blueberries in blueberry-raspberry pies and jams, among other blended products, started to decline. And here in B.C., the rising value of blueberries led to rising land costs. Sweeney says that, by 2005, blueberries were such a hot commodity that speculators started to buy up Fraser Valley farmland to plant the valuable crop. Even though the land held by speculators is relatively small, Gill saw the effect in spiking land prices.

At first, the blueberry boom was good news for local farmers, but as supply rose, the price paid to farmers started to tumble. Since about half the world’s blueberries are frozen before reaching store shelves, the volume of berries held in cold storage is an indicator of overall supply. In the U.S., the volume of blueberries being held in cold storage has climbed to a projected 130.9 million pounds this year, from 94.6 million pounds in 2008. The price per pound of blueberries paid to the farmer, which for many years hovered around $0.70, climbed to $1.60 in 2006; then, last year, it fell to $1.00 and will be back around $0.70 in 2009. Meanwhile, local farmers such as Gill are being squeezed. Their costs are now about 90 cents a pound, thanks to their number one expense: labour, which rose from 35 cents per pound picked in 2001 to 60 cents a pound today.

There is also more competition from across the line during the fresh berry season. The major producing state of Michigan is picking and selling berries at the same time as B.C., and when only frozen B.C. berries are available in the winter, consumers can choose fresh produce from South America. Further aggravating matters, Gill says, is the fact that American growers have land that costs half of what he has to pay and much cheaper labour.

The great difficulty with blueberries, unlike many other crops, is that farmers can’t turn around on a dime. Wheat farmers can change to oats or barley in a year. Raspberries produce a crop in two years. But as Sweeney points out, blueberries don’t produce anything until year three. And they don’t reach their peak production for a decade. Given the rush to plant a couple of years ago, even if another bush isn’t put in the ground, Sweeney figures global production will continue to increase for another seven years.

Gill says the people in the most trouble are those who jumped in recently and have huge financial costs. But even he will have to adjust to what he calls a market “correction.” So far, Gill is planning to cut corners in two areas: He will have more of his berries machine harvested, although most of that fruit goes to the less-lucrative frozen or juice market. (He still comes out ahead: a picking machine with a crew of five can do as much work as a hand-picking crew of 50 or 60.) And he will cut back on pollination. Even though he admits that renting colonies of honeybees for his fields increases production, he plans to cut the number of hives in his field by one-third.

Gill says consumers may get a break because of the price collapse, but for B.C.’s berry farmers “it is going to be a couple of tough years.” He says the local industry is working to develop new markets, particularly in India and Korea. But basically, he says, government will have to decide to “keep a focus” on agriculture, and British Columbians will have to decide whether they are willing to pay the price to eat local or watch what happened to the local fresh vegetable market now happen to blueberries.