By Leo Quigley, AJOT
When you’re a Canadian berry grower who relies exclusively on the US and Southeast Asian markets the last thing you need is a work stoppage by container truck drivers.
However, with every cold storage unit in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland filled with produce and meat, and a crop of blueberries about to come in from the fields, this is what Gord Cheema, partner/operator in Fraser Valley Packers was faced with earlier this year.
Cheema is the largest blueberry grower in BC and, with 400 acres under cultivation, may be the largest grower of high bush, cultivated, blueberries in North America, producing about C$10 million in blueberries and raspberries annually.
When the container truckers parked their rigs for a month this summer, refusing to move domestic containers, Cheema’s was faced with the problem of getting his berries to Southeast Asia and, in particular, to Japan.
Fraser Valley Packers stores a customer’s berries for roughly 13 months to insure a continuous supply throughout the year.
“Our problem was we couldn’t get fruit into Japan and our worry was that our Japanese customers might think that Canadian ports are unreliable and start sourcing out of the US,” Cheema said.
“The new crop was coming in and we still had fruit that had to be shipped out from last years’ crop,” he said.
Cold storage space throughout the Fraser Valley was backed up because shippers were unable to move products such as poultry, beef and produce through the Port of Vancouver.
“We had to start exporting through the US,” he said.
The company chose the Port of Portland, which added “considerable cost” to Fraser Valley’s transportation bill.
“But we had to manage and keep our customer base,” Cheema said.
Adding to Fraser Valley’s problems was the fact that, with the escalating violence and intimidation during the labor dispute, truckers from south of the border refused to come to the Fraser Valley plant in Abbottsford. It then became necessary to truck the berries to Bellingham, WA, and put them in cold storage overnight so they could be picked up the following day and trucked to Portland.
“Truckers were fearful,” Cheema said.
While other growers faced similar problems, including an inability to get packaging materials, Fraser Valley’s was particularly acute since the firm is the largest exporter of cultivated blueberries.
While new markets are opening in Asia for the product, it takes time to develop markets, particularly when blueberry prices are high Cheema said. Meanwhile, the North American blueberry industry is rapidly growing with expansion in British Columbia, the State of Washington, Maine and Eastern Canada. This doubling of production has growers like Cheema worried that the market could soon be flooded. And, the fact that the Canadian dollar keeps going up in value relative to US currency is also making it difficult for BC fruit exporters.
The other factor that created headaches for B.C. growers this year was a cold, wet spring followed by an early summer weather that discouraged bees from pollinating the berry plants, resulting in smaller fruit and losses of more than C$20 million to blueberry growers in the province.
In addition, Fraser Valley Packers faces the same serious problem that other growers throughout the province now face, a lack of pickers. Cheema said his crew of berry pickers are now over 60 years of age and are not as productive as younger pickers.
“We don’t have any young people in our fields,” he said. “We do use harvesters for the processing market, but for the fresh fruit ’ which is a huge market for use and a cash flow ’ that’s all hand picked.”
About half the Fraser Valley Packers blueberries are sold as fresh fruit.