B.C. farmers ripping out raspberries as industry faces high costs, cheap competition
Local farmers struggling to compete with global market due to prices of labour, land, supplies
Peter Thind used to have 140 acres of raspberries on his Abbotsford, B.C., farm. But he's now scaled back to 20 acres, ripping out the crop to plant blueberries instead.
"It's not profitable anymore," he says. "Raspberry wasn't paying us to pay the mortgage."
Growers say high costs of labour, land and supplies have made it difficult for local farmers to compete with cheaper imports of the berry from countries like Mexico, Chile and Serbia.
James Bergen, chair of the Raspberry Industry Development Council, says many farmers, like Thind, are turning to other crops instead.
"The B.C. industry is in a significant decline," he says.
B.C. raspberry production was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when 42 million pounds per year were picked. But production has dropped dramatically, falling to less than 17 million pounds last year.
The number of growers has declined too — from 500 at the raspberry industry's peak to just 90 now.
Thind's grandson Kyle is taking over the family farming business and believes it will look very different in the future.
"I'm trying but it's a really hard struggle. If at the end of the day no one is buying what you're producing, you're not making any money," says Kyle.
Raspberry Capital of Canada
Abbotsford is known as the "Raspberry Capital of Canada," but the shifting global market could put that title in jeopardy, too.
"You lose your identity as that raspberry capital," says Bergen, adding that the decline of the local berry should be concerning for consumers.
"You're losing your potential to food safety, food security. Consumers, if they get it from B.C., they know it's coming from a local source, a reputable source.
"A lot of the growers are a CanadaGAP certified, meaning we go through food safety audits every single year, so you're losing that [when you buy imports]," he says.
Hope in new varieties
This year, farmers have been hit with a double whammy ahead of raspberry season, which in B.C. usually runs mid-June through September.
Not only are they facing challenges from the global market, but the cold snap in mid-February has damaged raspberry crops.
"We don't know the exact amount of winter injury in the [Fraser] Valley at this point, but we do know there is some," says Bergen.
Raspberries are a fragile fruit and require lots of handling and attention to grow. The variety grown in B.C. needs to be consumed within five days of being picked.
But the industry is working on establishing a new variety that will be more resilient.
"It will have an extended shelf life ... and to get an extra three to four days of shelf life would be absolutely huge in our industry," says Bergen.
Developing new varieties is a priority for the government too, says B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.
"I've been talking to the federal government to secure funding to do research with raspberry growers specifically on that, to have varieties that will be more appealing to consumers, so that's a work in progress," said Popham.
It's a plan that Bergen hopes will make more growers think twice before repurposing their raspberry fields.
"Not a guarantee, but one that shows promise," he says.
In the meantime, growers are urging consumers to buy local if they want to see the industry survive.
"That helps a lot," Thind says.