Pitt Meadows blueberry farmers coping with drought

Smaller berries, ripening earlier, could lead to loss of more than six million kilograms

Drought-stricken blueberries are smaller this year, and the harvest could be down by more than six million kilograms.

So far, farmers in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows have avoided a disaster.

“The drought, in combination with some of the heat, has put a lot of stress on the plants,” said Jesse Brar, the vice-president of sales and packing operations for Golden Eagle Blueberries.

The Pitt Meadows farm is the largest high bush blueberry farm in Canada, and is owned by the Aquilinis – the family that owns the Vancouver Canucks.

Brar said the farm has stickhandled through the summer drought. The lack of moisture has created smaller than average fruit, but it has also killed molds that can attack blueberries.

The intense heat this summer has the fruit ripening at least two weeks earlier than usual.

“It has made the harvest very concentrated – all of the fruit has ripened at the same time,” he said.

Golden Eagle has rushed to harvest the six million kilograms of blueberries it produces in an average year. It’s almost impossible for farmers to get enough manpower into the fields, said Brar.

“Picking labour is always an issue. I don’t think there are enough pickers to pick the crop.”

He said more farmers are moving to mechanical picking, which wastes about 10-15 per cent of a crop due to fruit simply falling.

Still, blueberries have been a lucrative crop for B.C. farmers, and 800 growers, most of them in the Fraser Valley, have been converting more fields from other crops.

“We will be higher than last year, just because we have a lot of young fields that are maturing,” said Brar.

Last year the entire B.C. crop was a record 69 million kilograms. Brar said producers had been talking about a crop of 77 million kilograms this year, but he estimates that will likely be revised to about 68 million, based on the local experience.

“It’s not a disaster by any means.”

Debbie Etsell of the B.C. Blueberry Council said her group anticipates pegs the loss due to drought being at least six million kilograms.

“The heat has definitely been a story this year. It’s been a challenge to keep the plants from being stressed,” said Etsell.

She said last weekend’s rains, and hopefully more in the forecast, should help provide more robust berries with the later blueberry varieties.

“Every farmer has to adapt to what the weather provides.”

Cranberries are another major crop in Pitt Meadows, but they typically aren’t harvested until the end of September.

“We’re doing not too bad, but things are definitely earlier,” said Mike Wallace, manager of the B.C. Cranberry Growers Association. “The hot weather certainly has advanced crops, just like blueberries here.”

He said cranberry farmers always set up near an irrigation source, but they are forced to use a lot more water this year.

He said growers receive more return for deeper coloured cranberries, and the fruit need cooler nights to become a deep red.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the colour develops this year.”