2019 saw a record blueberry crop of 200 million pounds. The BC Blueberry Council expects yields to be down “significantly” this year. Maple Ridge News file photo.

Fraser Valley blueberry growers struggle with ‘tremendous’ labour shortages, bad weather

BC Blueberry Council calls for federal government to remove the $1,000-limit cap on CERB program

Fraser Valley blueberry growers, suffering from poor summer-weather conditions and “tremendous” labour shortages, have a bleak outlook for this year’s harvest.

Crop volumes are expected to be “significantly” down from 2019’s 200-million-pound yield due to cold and wet weather affecting crop development, according to the BC Blueberry Council.

The council says weather issues are hurting the plant-pollination process and fields have been flooded by seepage along the Fraser River due to excessive rain.

“Yields are definitely down, but it is hard to say by how much at this point. I am also concerned there could be issues with the quality of the fruit from the excessive rainfall,” said Jason Smith of Fraser Berry Farms. “It’s a tough season following a tough year.”

While picking machines are temporarily challenged by wet fields, the market for fresh berries (which are only picked by hand) are being heavily impacted by the labour shortages.

The council says this shortage is huge, with a workforce down 50 per cent for hand pickers on the 25,000 acres of blueberry farmland in production in B.C.

“In all my years I have never seen a year like this. To have bad weather plus this labour shortage and COVID is not something we have ever had to face,” said Parm Bains, president of Westberry Farms.

“With people not wanting to work because of CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) or concerns about the virus, plus fewer seasonal agriculture workers, the industry is really struggling.”

Many of the council’s 600 growers are citing the federal government’s $1,000 limit-cap in the CERB program as the problem.

The BC Berry Council is recommending the government remove the cap “to provide and incentive for people to come out and help with berry picking.”

“[Workers] get a benefit of $2,000 a month, you can earn up to $1,000 more before the clawback. What we’re saying is, [the government] is going to pay people anyways,” said Anju Gill, executive director of the BC Blueberry Council. “Someone can pick blueberries and make more than that, but they’re not for fear their benefits will be clawed back if they earn.”

The province’s entire blueberry industry employs around 10,000 people, of which around 25 per cent come under the Seasonal Agricultural Program, according to Gill.

“What we are seeing is that overall, even our traditional domestic labour force we’re falling short on,” Gill said.

In 2019, the blueberry season started in June because of good weather. This year, it started in the first week of July – typically the month with the biggest yields, according to Gill.

“The [yield] number – anecdotally that I’m hearing – is atleast 25 per cent down,” she said. “But it is still early in the season. We should have a better idea in the next couple of weeks.”

RELATED: $2.9 million judgment in B.C. blueberry farm sabotage lawsuit

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