Sun ripens blueberries for bumper Pitt crop

Harvest delayed by rain, picking to start in two weeks.

Baldev Dhuga inspects his blueberry crop after a wet June. See story.

Baldev Dhuga inspects his blueberry crop after a wet June. See story.

A long stretch of sunshine heralds the start of a strong season for blueberry farmers in Pitt Meadows and the Fraser Valley who are predicting a bumper crop this year, despite a soggy June.

Picking in most areas will start around July 18, as more than 800 growers begin a harvest that is on track to equal 2011’s record season.

While British Columbia’s cool, wet spring has somewhat delayed the bulk of the blueberry harvest, growers are anticipating a strong crop of sweet, juicy blueberries and a long, abundant season that is expected to extend into October.

Gary Purewal, who owns one of the largest blueberry operations in Pitt Meadows, expects to start harvesting in two weeks.

The rain wasn’t good for his crop, but the changes he made to his fields and better irrigation means his yield will be higher than last year.

“It’s going to be a good season for the fresh packers,” said Purewal, who farms 605 hectares (1,500 acres).

Last year’s crop, coming in at 43 million kilograms, made B.C. the world’s largest highbush blueberry growing region.

Purewal’s blueberries account for between 10 and 15 per cent of that crop.

Highbush blueberries grown in British Columbia currently represent 98 per cent of Canadian fresh product. While some of these blueberries will be packaged, processed or frozen, approximately 50 per cent of the blueberries harvested will soon be popping up at farm gates, farmers’ markets and in supermarkets across British Columbia and Canada.

Sales of B.C. blueberries are again expected to top $100 million in 2012. Along with domestic sales within Canada, B.C. blueberries are also exported to 21 countries globally, including Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany.

This year, Purewal plans to capitalize on the “locavore” food movement by selling fresh berries and frozen ones at the farm.

“The most compelling reason to buy fresh, local B.C. blueberries is that they’re irresistibly delicious and sweet,” said Debbie Etsell, executive director of the British Columbia Blueberry Council.

“But consumers might not realize that by buying local, they’re also providing vital support to our dedicated growers, and helping to guarantee jobs for packers, shippers, pickers, and processors throughout the province.”

British Columbia’s blueberry growers employ more than 10,000 workers, mainly within the Fraser Valley corridor, to work in the fields, harvest, pack and process the fruit.

However, not all the blueberry farmers in Pitt Meadows are optimistic about the season.

Baldev Dhuga of Westberry Farms Ltd. said his harvest has been affected by all the recent rain.

“The production is going to be very low,” said Dhuga, who usual produces around 350,000 pounds of berries, but predicts he’s only going to harvest around 200,000 pounds this year.

Since 2003, the total area of B.C. farmland planted with blueberries has more than doubled to in excess of 8,100 hectares (20,000 acres) making it one of British Columbia’s fastest growing agricultural industries.

 

– with files from the B.C. Blueberry Council.