Ting Wu of Formosa Nursery said plants will be better able to withstand dry weather if they are watered less frequently, but with a lot of water, to create deep roots. (Neil Corbett/THE NEWS)

Ting Wu of Formosa Nursery said plants will be better able to withstand dry weather if they are watered less frequently, but with a lot of water, to create deep roots. (Neil Corbett/THE NEWS)

Summer drought hits blueberry farmers

Pitt Meadows precipitation likely to be record low

Record-setting dry weather in the Fraser Valley has blueberry producers facing a smaller harvest.

Anju Gill, acting executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council, said the blueberry harvest across the province is down an estimated 30 per cent.

However, there is still time for late summer varietals to increase yields, and picking will continue through late September.

“The production is definitely down,” said Gill. “What it will be at the end of the season is hard to say.”

The precipitation numbers from Environment Canada show why some plants are withering.

Environment Canada meteorologist Alyssa Charbonneau noted that in July there was just three millimetres of rainfall at Pitt Meadows airport, compared to the average of 57 mm for the month.

The drought has continued in August with just 6.4 mm, whereas normally the month averages 68 mm.

“It has been a very dry summer,” said Charbonneau, adding it will likely go down as the driest on record, barring significant rains this week. That’s not in the forecast.

“It’s looking dry this week, and likely if we get anything [rain], it would be very light.”

The dry conditions actually started in June, when precipitation recorded was 48 mm, below the normal average of 80 mm.

Charbonneau noted many communities, including both Vancouver and Abbotsford, are also headed for record dry summers.

The “climate normals” in Pitt Meadows are based on statistics from 1971 to 2000.

Blueberries are the key crop in the Fraser Valley. There are now 700 growers in the province, and most are in the Lower Mainland region.

Pitt Meadows is home to Golden Eagle Blueberries, the largest berry farm in the province at approximately 1,800 acres. It is owned by the Aquilini Group, which also owns the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL.

Blueberry production has been rising every year, from 68,000 metric tons in 2014, up to 73,000 in 2015 and a record 77,000 last year.

Ting Wu of Formosa Organic Blueberry Farm in Maple Ridge said hot weather is actually good for blueberries. They like a lot of sunshine, he said, and can be hardy in drought conditions.

Wu does not irrigate his blueberry bushes, and uses mulch. His plants are about 40 years old and hardy.

“We have less problems in the dry weather,” he said, noting he has had a good year.

He said younger blueberry plants are less hardy – and there has been a rush to plant the popular crop in recent years.

“They’ve been planting like crazy.”

He said all plants are made susceptible to drought conditions by frequent, light irrigation, which creates shallow roots.

His advice to growers is to water plants less frequently, but give them a good soaking so the moisture goes deep in the soil. That will create a long root system, and a plant that can live on less precipitation, said Wu.