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B.C. blueberry farmers brace for impact as U.S. sets sights on berry and produce tariffs

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U.S. International Trade Commission asked to investigate whether U.S. farmers hurt by increased berry imports

After waging war on Canadian dairy, steel and aluminum, Donald Trump’s White House is setting its sights on foreign berry farmers and vegetable growers.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is exploring whether domestic farmers are being hurt by imports of blueberries and raspberries from Canada and Mexico.

Lighthizer last week asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate whether domestic farmers are being hurt by increased blueberry imports.

The B.C. Blueberry Council says it has retained legal counsel as a result of the USITC investigation.

Council executive director Anju Gill says she’s hopeful the close working relationship between the U.S. and Canadian industries will stave off any protectionist measures.

Senators from Maine have written Lighthizer to ask that certain wild blueberry products from Canada be exempted from any forthcoming tariffs.

After waging war on Canadian dairy, steel and aluminum, Donald Trump's White House is setting its sights on foreign berry farmers and vegetable growers.

B.C. blueberry growers struggle to salvage crop

It’s shaping up to be a “tough season following a tough year.”

Blueberry farmer Wyatt Bates samples his crop of Duke-variety berries at his family’s spread, Tecarte Farms, in Ladner on July 24. The berries are ready for harvest, as long as the labour is available to do so. Photo by Jason Payne / PNG

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    Poor weather and labour shortages are hammering B.C.’s blueberry growers who are dealing with lower yields and a workforce reduction of more than 50 per cent this year.

    “In all my years, I have never seen a year like this,” said Abbotsford blueberry grower Parm Bains, who began farming in 1989. “To have bad weather plus this labour shortage … is not something we have ever had to face.”

    B.C. blueberry growers struggle to salvage crop Back to video

    Bains said farmers are trying to share workers, helping out those who are unable to find anyone to pick their berries, but “it is really tough.”

    “With people not wanting to work because of CERB or concerns about the virus, plus fewer seasonal agriculture workers, the industry is really struggling,” said the owner of Westberry Farms.

    Fraser Berry Farms owner Jason Smith called it a “tough season following a tough year.”

    Cool weather in spring and early summer negatively impacted pollination, while high water levels in the Fraser River caused flooding and seepage in many low-lying fields. The one-two punch will likely mean a smaller yield, although it’s still unclear how much less.


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    “I am also concerned there could be issues with the quality of the fruit from the excessive rainfall,” said Smith.

    With more than 25,000 acres in production across the province, the blueberry industry’s need for labour is significant, said B.C. Blueberry Council executive director Anju Gill. The reduction in the workforce could be more than 50 per cent, particularly for hand-picking.

    “The shortage may mean fruit goes unpicked or it may impact how growers harvest it,” she said.

    Unable to get pickers, more farmers may choose to machine-pick their berries, which reduces their shelf life and ability to be exported or sold for the fresh market. Farmers receive the best prices for fresh berries, rather than processed.

    In a typical year, about half of B.C.’s blueberries are sold fresh and half are processed, often by freezing. Combined, about 70 per cent of all B.C. blueberries are exported.

    The harvest employs about 10,000 people on farms and in packing and processing facilities in a typical year, about 25 per cent of whom are migrant workers.

    According to Ministry of Agriculture data from early July, about 5,000 temporary foreign workers have arrived in B.C. so far this year. That’s about half of the 10,000 foreign workers that are typically employed on farms across the province.

    B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham sounded the alarm about the labour shortage in early June, predicting a 6,000-to-8,000-worker shortfall across the province. Hoping local workers would help fill the gap, the provincial government launched a new website called the B.C. Farm, Fish & Food Connector to highlight opportunities and jobs in the agriculture sector.


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    But Gill said farmers have actually noticed a drop in the local labour force, with anecdotal reports that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) may be to blame. If workers earn more than $1,000, the benefit is clawed back, possibly making it more lucrative to stay home rather than working.

    The B.C. Blueberry Council is calling on the federal government to eliminate the $1,000 cap to encourage more people to help with picking.

    “We think agriculture workers need to be treated a little differently since it’s quite a unique industry,” said Gill. “I don’t think CERB was intended to be an obstacle for farmers to secure labour.”

    The silver lining of the season is high demand for fresh blueberries, with farmers and customers adapting to new rules around U-pick, such as the requirement to buy a bucket at the farm rather than bringing one from home.

    It’s shaping up to be a "tough season following a tough year."