Blueberries have flourished for 20 years in the Fraser Valley, but discontent is growing among farmers, and some are selling their farms.
The problem, same farmers say, is that while their berries sell for $2.99 per pound in the grocery store, their share of that might be as little as 55 cents.
Their cut isn’t cutting it.
Hardeep Gill recently sold his blueberry farm in Abbotsford, and calls himself a “big victim” of the pricing system that he says is failing many farmers.
He said they don’t know how much they can expect to receive for their crops. He received anywhere from $1.50 to 55 cents per pound, but was always forced to take whatever he could get.
“You don’t have any say – you have to get rid of the fruit before it gets soft,” he said.
At the lower end of the pay scale, he was not even covering his operating costs.
“I couldn’t survive,” he said. “There’s lots of people in the same situation as me, especially the small farmers.”
“Me, my wife and my dad worked so hard, but we couldn’t cover our costs.”
Devinder Brar is on the executive of the B.C. Blueberry Growers Association, which represents about 300 farmers, and formed four years ago primarily to get fair prices for farmers.
“Prices dropped, and we were getting hammered,” Brar said.
He explained that in 2010 and 2011, many blueberry producers saw returns of $1.60 per pound.
“We were very happy. But now processors and brokers control the whole industry,” said Brar.
“It is a big issue. If you get 60 cents [per pound] for your berries, and your cost is 90, how will you survive?”
He said some farmers are forced to wait most of a year before they get paid for their crops in the present model.
Gary Purewal is a Pitt Meadows producer and packer who agrees that farmers have a legitimate complaint.
There are middle men who find markets for the fruit, and they seem not to have a bottom line price.
“Some marketers lowballed, selling at a very low price before the season even began,” Purewal said.
“I did hear some very, very low pricing in the market this year,” he added. “The guy at the bottom end is the grower. I can feel for them. We’re growers, too.”
Purewal Farms has about 300 acres of blueberries in Pitt Meadows and another 184 in Port Coquitlam. As packers, they supply 15 million pounds of blueberries each year, growing about 6.5 million on their farms, and purchasing the rest.
He said they were able to offer farmers $1.05 to $1.10 per pound.
“We’re lucky that we have a retailer who looks after us, and we’re able to look after our growers,” he said.
B.C. blueberries have been a great crop, with well promoted health benefits, he said, and produced at a rate of 172 million pounds last year. Now the challenge is fairly dividing the profits.
“One real passionate grower said to me, ‘I’m growing a super food, and I can’t afford to pay my bills,’” said Purewal.
“You’ve got to have better dialogue between the grower, the packer and the retailer,” he added. “If retailers understand these low prices are impacting the B.C. industry, they would definitely step up.”
Brar said his group will advocate, and hopes to achieve some price certainty for next season.
“We will fight for farmers.”
He said producers expect government leadership, and more help from the B.C. Blueberry Council.
Debbie Etsell, executive director of the council, said the pricing issue is complex, and her group is not a marketing board, and does not oversee the blueberry producers businesses deals. There are different prices available to farmers, depending on the quality of their crop, and whether it is sold for the fresh or frozen market.
“I’ve heard there are some growers who aren’t happy,” said Etsell.
“There has been incredible growth in production, and when there’s an increase in supply, certain things happen.”
She said the law of supply and demand driving prices down is one of the factors that may be at play, and said blueberry production is ramping up in the U.S., South America, Europe and Asia.
According to the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’s annual report for 2014-2015, world production hit one billion pounds in 2014, but may still climb to an estimated 1.7 billion as soon as 2019.