Strawberries on the vine.
People asked to define B.C. may come up with provincial treasures like the abundance of culture, diverse people and lush scenery – not to mention the title of “Hollywood North” – but when it comes to defining agriculture, and specifically crops, berries always take a starring role in the province.
In the ongoing saga of berry production it is an expectation that the weather will fight for its star on the walk of fame. This year was no different when the weather diva captured headlines by playing both roles of the supportive side-kick and the villainous antagonist. Despite the weather’s unpredictability, there are still a number of rave reviews for the strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and cranberry crops of 2012.
The first to ripen, and perhaps the hardest hit by the weather, this year’s strawberries could win the award for best fresh face.
Commercial growers once focused solely on June berries, but with a desire for a longer production season and a need to expand beyond the unpredictability of May and June weather patterns, growers have added more ever-bearing plants.
“We anticipate that the acreage of ever bearing strawberries will increase, while the June bearing acreage will either stabilize or decrease,” notes Sharmin Gamiet, association manager of the Fraser Valley Strawberry Growers Association.
For the past several years, 2012 included, June provided a wet, cold weather setting, but the plot twist this year came with a late sun burst. The late support helped, but certainly didn’t create any record breaking results.
According to Gamiet, the majority of early berries were more of an industrial quality due to the heavy rains, but later berries were excellent in quality thanks to the tardy, sunny weather. Not all growers have reported in, but Gamiet says yield numbers are expected to be down from last year’s for processed strawberries while the fresh crop will be up.
Richmond grower Bill Zylmans was one of a lucky few who experienced an “awesome” fresh crop, but his story is not the standard this year.
B.C. raspberries valiantly took the best supporting role for having a decent, though below average, year.
Raspberries also fell victim to the challenging antagonist of a cold, rainy spring and early summer. According to B.C. Raspberries, pollination wasn’t abundant due to the overly damp weather, leading to poor performance in both quality and yield. It even rained during peak harvest periods.
The yield for raspberries is expected to finish 10% below last year’s results. Gamiet, who also serves as the executive director for B.C. Raspberries says results are still coming in, but the pattern of quality was similar to that of strawberries. Early berries were generally of industrial grade, while later season berries were “exceptionally good”.
“The IQF (individually quick frozen) price was good for raspberries, but the puree, jam and juice price was low,” she summarized.
Best picture goes to blueberries for a 10.5% increase in yield.
This is the largest crop ever for B.C., now the largest blueberry growing region in the world, according to Debbie Etsell, executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council.
“We’re estimating at 105 million pounds. Ten million over last year,” she says.
Like most film productions, our neighbours to the south generally overshadow B.C.’s involvement, but not any more. Preliminary stats from the USDA indicate a continuing decline in blueberry crops in Maine and Michigan – the two largest producers in the U.S. If 2012 stats come in at similar levels to 2011 for those two states, B.C. will indeed come out, as Etsell predicts, in the leading role. Something Hollywood North will envy.
A happy ending wasn’t always predicted. The weather challenges threatened to create a horror movie, but unlike the raspberries, pollination wasn’t impacted by the late, soggy spring.
Quality did suffer during one week of harvesting, towards the middle of the season, when berries were getting too hot, but fortunately it had little impact on the majority of the crop.
“There were some areas with quality concerns at the beginning of the season,” Etsell said, referring to those impacted by the high waters of the Fraser River as well.
With early, mid and late maturing varieties the fruit was harvested from mid-July to mid-October without much drama. In fact, Etsell notes it was one of the best seasons with great ripening weather.
Including the new plantings this fall, there will be close to 800 blueberry growers with 24,000 acres under production in 2013.
There was a lot of press about cranberries this year. The tart berries would definitely receive awards for best costume as well as best scientific and technical feature.
The fruit’s wardrobe enhancement came thanks to the new $26-million Ocean Spray receiving station which opened in September in Richmond. Just 6 km from the former station, according to Ocean Spray, the new plant has an annual capacity of 45 million kilograms – a 50% increase.
“It can handle more berries, it is designed for future growth and it has the latest in food-handling equipment,” notes Mike Wallis, executive director of the B.C. Cranberry Growers’ Association.
Sorting, cleaning and binning are all done with the latest equipment, improving berry quality, thus appearance, and wait times for delivering growers.
In the scientific and technical feature category is a new Richmond research testing facility made possible in part with funding from the federal government. A first in Canada, the site will allow testing of different varieties and inputs in a controlled setting. Initial construction is expected to wrap up in early 2013 on the 15-acre production site.
“Blueberries and raspberries have had their own testing and research station,” remarks Wallis. “Cranberries had to do it on their own. It’s kind of exciting really.”
Because they are the latest berry crop to come in, specifics on yield data are unavailable.
“We’re still harvesting now,” Wallis said. “The overall anticipation is to be at least average or above average.”
“There was a declining yield over the past few years and it didn’t start off all that great this year,” he says.
Then, that helpful side-kick stepped in. A fall filled with sun made for above average yield and a good fruit size – at least for one Richmond grower Wallis spoke to.
Wallis suggested a total crop yield of more than 90 million pounds with quality issues expected only on some of the last-harvested berries due to the returning rainfall.■