British Columbia

Glut of blueberries floods B.C. market leaving farmers struggling to make profit

It's peak blueberry season in B.C. and grocery stores are fully stocked with heaps of the little purple fruits at rock-bottom prices, which is great news for berry lovers but farmers say they're struggling to stay profitable.

Every year, around the end of July, all the blueberries in Lower Mainland ripen at same time

Humraj Kallu is a second generation farmer in Richmond, B.C. who says climbing operations costs are making it difficult to turn a profit in the competitive local blueberry market. ( Rhoda Obineche/Canwest Farms)

It's peak blueberry season in B.C. and grocery stores are fully stocked with heaps of the little purple fruits at rock bottom prices, which is great news for berry lovers. but farmers say they're struggling to stay profitable.

Back in the 1990's, many farmers in the province started growing blueberries because of the untapped potential market, according to one second-generation farmer in Richmond.

"There was a lot more profitability in blueberries and more of a consistent market ... Every year the prices would get just slightly better and movement was good, you always sold your crop," said Humraj Kallu, operations manager at Canwest farms.

Kallu's father switched his crops from vegetables, strawberries and raspberries to blueberries in the 90s because he thought the farm could make more money in this new market.

The problem was a lot of other farmers had the same idea.

Now, many of the crops in the Fraser Valley are of the same variety, called Duke blueberries, which all ripen at the same time of year causing the glut of supply some farmers refer to as the "big blue wave."

Kallu said they're competing with the U.S. and global markets as well as the local producers, and every year it becomes more difficult to turn a profit when costs keep climbing.

The "big blue wave" of blueberries hits local markets and grocery stores all at once during this time of year, driving prices down for berry lovers. (Rachel Sanders/CBC)

The industry is working with the provincial and federal governments to create a solution by finding ways to breed blueberries that ripen at different times of year, according to the project's research director, Eric Gerbrandt.

He said the program started in the late 1950s, breeding raspberries and then strawberries and they've recently turned their attention to blueberries.

"We're looking for earlier and later season varieties. We're looking for higher yields, better fruit quality, the ability to ship our fruit farther to export markets," Gerbrandt said.

In the short term, his team of plant breeders are evaluating different blueberry genetics from around the world to see how well those varieties do locally.

Gerbrandt said he's optimistic, although breeding new strains can take up to two decades, and climate change makes the whole process a bit of a moving target.

"From direct involvement in the program I can tell you I'm very hopeful," he said.

"We have a beautiful growing environment here in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley and we believe the new collections that are coming down the pipeline in our breeding program are going to improve the competitiveness of production here in B.C."

To hear the full story listen to media below:

With files from Rachel Sanders, The Early Edition

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