Berry and vegetable growers have faced severe flooding during the recent extreme weather to rock the Fraser Valley. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Berry and vegetable growers have faced severe flooding during the recent extreme weather to rock the Fraser Valley. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Disastrous flooding likely to set Fraser Valley food growers back many years

Berry and vegetable farmers devastated by extreme weather, recovery could cost billions

Extreme flooding has been catastrophic for local berry and vegetable growers in the Fraser Valley, with one local expert predicting that many farms wil be forced to start over.

Former University of the Fraser Valley instructor Tom Baumann has been blunt when local farmers ask him what to do next.

“Growers keep asking me – how long can the plants tolerate.

“When they’re completely dormant they can sustain for two or three weeks, but by three weeks I’m going to pull the plug.

“I’m going to say we’re going to lose all of our plants, that’s what I’m predicting is going to happen.”

Baumann has offered agriculture consultations for over 35 years, ran his own nursery in Chilliwack and is the president of the Expert Agriculture Team.

Baumann said the berry and vegetable industry is preparing itself for what will soon become a massive and hugely expensive effort to recover. He said plants can survive some time under water, but not this amount and for this long.

“When you drive through the Surrey or Cloverdale area, their plants are under water for the majority of the winter,” he said. “It’s a little bit of water, it’s just wet – not flooded. The plants have not vanished like out here, it’s absolutely absurd and this is a new one for us – it’s never, ever happened.”

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He said another big concern is the possibility of soil contamination and damage. Chemical and fuel spills could be present in the water floating around farms in the Fraser Valley.

Another major issue is existing irrigation systems that will have to be completely reconstructed in many cases. Baumann said he believes it could be another decade before the Fraser Valley will have a full yield of blueberries again, as growing blueberries is be a time-consuming process – sometimes taking as long three years for a small harvest and as many as six for a larger one.

The reality of growing berries is a fact not lost on Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun. He’s been speaking with local growers since the flooding began, and went on a tour of some of the impacted areas with B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.

“My heart ached,” Braun said. “This is going to take a long time to recover. If they’re underwater for more than four or five days the plant itself dies, so it has to be pulled out, and then you have to wait four or five years more for a decent crop. Some of those farmers told me they don’t know if they can financially do it.”

”I feel for those people.”

Braun said recovery could be in the billions of dollars, and many could just choose to move on. Sumas Prairie has about 1,200 acres in blueberries. Braun is hoping that the government can provide assistance to those farmers.

One of those hit hard was Abbotsord’s Curtis Sandhu. His family came to Canada in the early 1960s and began farming about a decade later. Today, the 27-year-old and his parents grow a variety of berries and vegetables across about 120 hectares, while several other relatives have farms nearby in the Abbotsford area.

“You spend 45 years building something and then to see it all go in six hours or something, it’s hard to see, right?” Sandhu said. “But, you know, being an immigrant family and working for everything they had, (my dad) said, ‘Well, we’re not going to go anywhere, we can’t go anywhere, this is our home and we’re not going to stop.’ ”

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Sandhu and his family left their home on Nov. 16 following an evacuation order, and the next day they received photos showing their almost two-metre berry plants underwater.

They wondered if their home, built on higher ground, would be all right. A visit by boat later that week revealed more than a metre of water inside.

Significant portions of many of the fruit and vegetable crops produced in the province are grown in the Sumas Prairie, Sandhu said. The farmers need help to clean up once the waters recede, and to repair their homes, infrastructure and soil so they can continue producing crops that feed people across the country, he added.

Close to 60 blueberry producers and 8.5 square kilometres of the berries have been affected by flooding, along with 33 hectares of raspberries that will need to be ripped out and replanted, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told a news conference.

About 4,000 tonnes of stored and unharvested field vegetables are likely lost, mostly from the Sumas Prairie and Fort Langley areas, with significant impacts to cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots and leeks, Popham said.

Asked about financial help, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the province is working with the federal government to determine where gaps in existing insurance, disaster and farming assistance programs must be filled.

But it’s not all completely bleak. Baumann believes the Sumas Prairie can recover and will ultimately return to its former glory as a top food producing area.

“The Sumas Prairie, especially the lake bed, is one of the most productive areas in British Columbia and all of Canada for growing,” he said. “As far as growing berries and vegetables again, I would recommend farmers do it again, if they asked me. We just have to hope this doesn’t happen again in the next 100 years.”

He does see labour issues and supply chain issues in general as bigger immediate problems for local growers.

“The recovery will be difficult but the land is ideal, especially for berries so I see that returning as a major crop,” he said.

The BC Blueberry Council earlier this week noted that 2,500 acres of blueberries have been impacted and about 1,000 acres in the Sumas Prairie region are still under water. They stated that all fields that had flooding will experience some degree of damage or loss.

The last few years have been challenging for the B.C. blueberry industry, due to unpredictable weather events and pollination challenges, which led to less-than-optimal volumes in production. In 2019, the crop volume was around 200 million pounds. It dropped by approximately 20 million pounds in 2020 and by nearly 50 million pounds in 2021.

The council has created a flooding resource page that outlines the varying levels of available assistance. This will be updated as information becomes available: bcblueberry.com/resources-and-support-bc-flooding-event.

Members of the public who are interested in helping blueberry growers can contact the BC Blueberry Council at 604-864-2117 or email info@bcblueberry.com.

– With files from: The Canadian Press

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Tom Baumann has been involved in the local agriculture scene for over 35 years and said he has never witnessed an event like this recent flooding to rock the Fraser Valley. (UFV photo)

Tom Baumann has been involved in the local agriculture scene for over 35 years and said he has never witnessed an event like this recent flooding to rock the Fraser Valley. (UFV photo)

Flooded farms are seen in this aerial photo in Sumas Prairie. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Flooded farms are seen in this aerial photo in Sumas Prairie. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)