U.S. fruit sellers look to Canada for berry production amid drought, rising costs

Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms are testing commercial production of berries in Ontario and Quebec. While there may be unexpected benefits for some growing regions, the shift reinforces the vast challenges ahead as the world adapts to climate change and extreme weather that is increasing in frequency and intensity.

As climate change makes traditional growing areas like California more costly, producers are looking north

As climate change makes agricultural regions like California drier and less predictable, fruitsellers are looking to parts of Canada where blackberries and raspberries are getting easier to grow. (Karl Boulanger/CBC)

U.S. fruit sellers are looking north to Canada as severe drought and water shortages continue to wreak havoc on crops in California, the biggest state for agriculture. 

American berry giant Driscoll's has partnered with Sébastien Dugré, co-owner of Massé Nursery in Saint-Paul-d'Abbotsford, Que., to test whether commercial production of blackberries and raspberries is viable in the province.

Quebec's colder climate can limit berry crops, so growing them on a larger scale is unusual for that part of Canada. Dugré started the trials last year, and was able to harvest almost 80 tonnes of fruit this year.

"There's definitely a learning curve. Last year was rough, this year is way better, we've got better fruit," he said.

Dugré is using dome-like tunnels to protect the plants from rain, while creating a microclimate that is warmer for the plants. It all helps him to start earlier in the spring and end later in the fall, extending the growing season.

"There's big companies interested in doing business in Canada … to me that's a good opportunity," said Dugré.

While there may be unexpected benefits for some growing regions, the shift in agriculture reinforces the vast challenges ahead as the world adapts to climate change and extreme weather that is increasing in frequency and intensity.

Sébastien Dugré is co-owner of Massé Nursery in Saint-Paul-d'Abbotsford, Que. He has partnered with Driscoll's to test commercial production of blackberries and raspberries. (Karl Boulanger/CBC)

Changing conditions

Driscoll's is also working with a few other growers in Ontario, while another U.S. fruit seller, Naturipe Farms, is experimenting with blueberries and raspberries in Ontario and Quebec.

While there is a lot of trial and error, partnering with larger players may be worth it for the Canadian growers, says Mary Doidge, assistant professor of agricultural economics at McGill University in Montreal. "Companies like Driscoll's that have a little bit more capital might be able to take those risks," she said.

Changing climate conditions are not the only incentive for the trials; high transportation costs make it comparatively cheaper to grow and ship within Canada.

"The fact that Canada is becoming more attractive has to do with the conditions here and how they're changing, but also the conditions in the places that these companies are already producing," said Doidge.

In California, labour shortages are a growing concern. And with prolonged drought and water scarcity becoming more common, there are rising costs to protect crops and pump water to farms, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll's, says that using technology and the latest genetics, his company can actually have a viable season in Canada.

"We're definitely going to increase and with more growers and and more hectares … we think over time that this is going to be a good risk mitigator."

Berry giant Driscoll's has been running trials to see if blackberries and raspberries can be grown in the comparatively colder climate of Quebec. (Karl Boulanger/CBC)

Redrawing the map

Farmers across the globe are redrawing the agricultural map as the world warms.

In Italy, the Morettino family runs a coffee-roasting business and successfully grew coffee for the first time in the past year. They planted 60 Arabica coffee plants, which were able to adapt to the Sicilian climate — much further north than where coffee is traditionally grown near the equator.

"We are witnessing strong climate changes that have to make us think about the present and future of our land," wrote Andrea Morettino in a blog post about the experience.

The Morettino family was able to successfully grow coffee in Palermo, Sicily, for the first time last year. (Morettino)

Other regions are forecast to get less suitable for growing. For example, a study published in the journal Plos One earlier this year estimated that by 2050, Peru could lose more than half of its suitable areas for growing avocado due to climate change.

"As we get this volatility in the weather, not just that the temperature is higher every day, but it's really the volatility, we're seeing our production get disrupted pretty significantly," Bjorn said.

"When you have disruptions in one place, you need to have another place that can hopefully mitigate some of the consequences in the marketplace."

But while there are opportunities for Canada as climate conditions shift, this country is not immune to extreme weather events. Drought has decimated prairie grain crops in recent years, while extreme flooding in B.C. last November impacted many berry farms. Still, growers like Dugré know that they must adapt to survive.

"It's a never-ending process, adjusting every year and in 30 years from now we'll still be adjusting."


Nisha Patel is a senior business reporter with CBC News. She's been reporting on business and economics for more than a decade and has lived and worked in New York City, Edmonton and Calgary. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two kids. Find her on Twitter @nishapatel.

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