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Berry farmers predicting record crop

Balvir Singh Brar picks blueberries at the Purewal Blueberry farm along Hale Road Tuesday morning. - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Balvir Singh Brar picks blueberries at the Purewal Blueberry farm along Hale Road Tuesday morning.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

The farmers of Pitt Meadows are anticipating a record-setting blueberry crop this summer.

“It’s another bumper crop,” said Pitt Meadows farmer Gary Purewal.

Purewal owns one of the largest blueberry operations in Pitt Meadows, and farms 1,500 acres (600 hectares) across the Lower Mainland.

It is a fast growing sector of the agri-economy.

In recent years, an increasing number of farms have been re-planted from other crops to blueberries, and plants are maturing and becoming their most productive.

Combine that with near-perfect growing conditions, and some industry analysts are predicting that this year’s harvest will blow away last year’s record 54.5 million kilograms by as much as 25 per cent.

Purewal said he has a field in Coquitlam that yielded 400,000 pounds in its first pick last year (180,000 kg), but this year he was astounded at its productivity – he just finished taking off over a million pounds (480,000 kg).

Overall, he estimates his production on all fields is up by 25 per cent on the first pick.

“The reason, I think, has been climate and pollination,” he said. “The weather was conducive for pollination.”

Debbie Etsell, the executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council, said the perfect weather goes right back to a fall that was good for winterizing plants, a mild winter and spring, “and now we’ve got the sunshine.”

Another factor, she explained, is that in the past eight years there has been a great deal of planting of new high bush blueberries in the Fraser Valley. It takes three years before they are productive, and 10 years before they reach maturity and full production.

So more plants are getting close to their potential.

Perfect weather and more plants are making a dramatic difference. Having walked in fields and talked with producers, Etsell too expects this year’s crop will exceed last year’s record.

“We’ve still got a lot of season to go,” she said, noting that cold and rain could still hurt yields.

Once berries start to ripen on a field, Purewal and other producers have just four days to get them picked.

“It’s a huge problem,” he said, but it’s a good problem to have.

He will get the job done with mechanical pickers that shake the bushes, and the busy hands of almost 500 pickers he employs for the harvest season.

Generally, blueberry plants produce two “good picks,” he explained, then a lighter crop for a third pick, which is termed “cleanup.”

Getting the billions of blue orbs through processing plants and on to market will be another challenge, as farms across the Fraser Valley compete for facilities. Almost the entire high bush blueberry sector in B.C. is located in the Fraser Valley.

It will be a busy time in the valley. B.C.’s blueberry growers employ more than 10,000 workers, to work in the fields, harvest, pack and process the fruit.

There were $155 million worth of blueberries exported from B.C. last year, making it one of the province’s biggest agricultural exports. That’s a rise of 31 per cent in just two years. The main markets were found in the U.S., Japan, China and Australia.

About half off the crop will be sold at farmers markets, supermarkets, and at farm gates.

Purewal said he will be offering sales of four-pound bags of frozen berries direct from his plant on Hale Road this year.

“It’s a phenomenal crop,” he said.

“And it’s going to be good for the consumer – it’s good fruit.”

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