Photo by Chung Chow
The surprising rays of sunshine did Richmond strawberry growers a favour on the weekend. But it’s longterm results that preoccupy the minds of local farmers.
“In all fairness, until a couple of days ago (when the weather turned sour) this strawberry season was looking fantastic,” says longtime farmer Bill Zylmans. “We had lots of berries and the yields were there. But inconsistency in the weather hampers sales.”
As an industry, says Zylmans, who operates WA Farms, there is concern about the longterm viability of growing local strawberries.
“For whatever reason we aren’t drawing excitement to purchase. Is it because berries from other countries are available year-round? Or the price of gas is causing people not to venture out to local farms?”
Gurpal Birak, who owns Birak’s, says it’s “very hard” to stay optimistic.
“It’s disappointing,” Birak says. “We don’t get the support. Something has to be done, like a subsidy, to help the farmer.”
Birak says local strawberries, without the use of chemicals, are the sweetest in the world. But he says without more local customers buying homegrown fruits and vegetables, the price has to go up. Inevitably, he adds, that also leads to fewer growers because they don’t see farming as a profitable business.
Zylmans recognizes that times change. But he says it’s getting harder, and more frustrating, to be a produce farmer.
“Historically the industry had three processing plants in the (Fraser) Valley,” he says. “When we used to have a surplus of berries they went to the cannery, and it was reflected in the price. Today there is no longer a relief valve in the form of a processing plant. The industry has dropped to a point where we’ve all learned you can only grow what you can sell direct to market. I used to grow 50 acres, now I grow 12 to 13. But because costs are getting bigger and higher all the time, it’s getting to be a costly venture. If you lose a crucial weekend in the season it turns into huge dollars losses. A bad rainstorm at a crucial time can wipe me out. There’s no getting around it.”