Healthy and Delicious BC Blueberries

The History of Blueberries in British Columbia

By Lia Van Baalen
The Johnston brothers, originally from Nova Scotia, planted native highbush seedlings on the peat bogs of Lulu Island as an experiment in the early 1920’s. Their farm eventually grew to a hundred acres and the brothers began to propagate their own varieties, including Fraser, Evelyn, Stanley and Charlotte. In the summer, they employed up to 400 pickers, many of whom were bused in from downtown Vancouver. A large portion of the Johnstons' harvest was purchased by the potato packers, who acted as early wholesalers. They also sold fresh produce, packed in flats containing 12 one-pound wooden boxes, from a stand on their farm.

The original farm has since been divided and sold, but portions still remain in production today. The bushes are now seven-feet tall, with glossy leaves and thick, gnarled branches. They require no irrigation, as the peat retains enough moisture. Growers report that the older varieties, including those bred by the Johnstons, were unaffected by disease during these early years.

Other pioneering families include the Bissetts, Thomases, Austrings and the McMorrans.

During the 1930s, farmers began to import named varieties from New Jersey in order to extend the bearing season and create a more marketable berry. Production expanded as more growers began to plant fields and farms sprang up in the neighbouring municipality of Pitt Meadows.

Farming was very labour intensive, as all pruning, weeding, picking, cleaning and packaging was done by hand. The majority of the pickers were women, children and First Nations people – many of whom would live on the farm in bunkhouses during the summer months.

Some growers used shaker trays – a wooden frame with a screen attached – to remove debris. Approximately four pounds of berries could fit into a tray at one time, and as the fruit was agitated, stems and blossoms would fall through the mesh. The berries were picked during the day, cleaned at night and driven to the local department stores and sold the next day. Most farmers had a stand on their farm and sold their produce directly to the public.

The mechanization of the industry was slow – horses were eventually replaced by trucks, and push mowers by tractors. In the 1960s, one local entrepreneur began to build motorized shaker tables to speed up the cleaning process. A conveyor belt deposited the berries onto a metal screen, which vibrated and forced any waste or undersized berries to fall into a box located underneath the machine. The first machine harvester was reportedly imported from Michigan in 1965 and was custom designed. This BEI ‘slapper,’ had rigid arms that shook the bushes, loosening any ripened fruit. It was originally intended for use on the blacktop fields of the United States, and would often get bogged down in Richmond’s soft, spongy peat.

A land use report attributed the rapid expansion of the blueberry industry in Richmond to the five-month bearing season, availability of land and the short hauling distance to the receiving plant.

The Co-op, founded in 1953, packaged and sold fresh and frozen berries. The Potato Board would purchase local produce, including blueberries, and acting as wholesalers, sell these goods to restaurants and grocers. Demand was limited, and growers often had extra fruit they were unable to sell. No common floor price existed, so prices were unstable and competition frequently created prices that were lower than capital input. The Co-op formed to increase grower profit and control.

Throughout the late 1950s and mid 1960s the price of fresh blueberries remained stable at $0.20 per pound, but many growers faced financial difficulty as prices fluctuated wildly over the next 15 years. They reached their lowest point in 1968, selling for $0.18 a pound before rocketing up to $0.72 a pound in 1978.

One of the Co-op’s primary marketing goals was to increase the sale of fresh berries. Increased product visibility in stores, along with radio adds and promotional material helped to accomplish this goal. Previously, blueberries were sold from small, on-farm stalls, but this determined group forced its product onto supermarkets shelves. In the 1970s, the price of fresh berries overtook the price of frozen and the key product that determined pricing alternated from processed to unprocessed fruit. The Co-op undertook several other initiatives, including standardized packaging, the use of plastic totes to eliminate fraud at weigh-in and computerized records. Having captured the western Canadian market, the Co-op began exporting to the United States and Asia, under the name of “Lullabelle.”

Originally, growers cleaned their own produce and trucked it to the Co-op for grading. In the 1980s, the first cooler was built. All packaging was done by hand; 12 fibre cups fit into one tray, and they were covered with a cellophane sheet and an elastic band. The Co-op increased production from 2 million to 14 million pounds between the 1980s and the 1990s. The Co-op closed down in 1996 and several independent packers opened to fill the niche.

Growers and packers lobbied the government to institute a levy system for all commodity groups, and in 1989, under the Farming and Fishing Industries Development Act, the British Columbia Blueberry Council was established. The organization, supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture, charged $0.008 per pound and used this money to fund research and marketing. At the time, the levy was refundable.

One particularly difficult issue was the cancellation of the provincial income insurance program for blueberry farmers in 1993. The surplus money was paid to the council, but growers felt it should have been given to them instead.

The council drafted cannon use guidelines to minimize noise, funded radio ads and handed out promotional materials, such as posters and recipes, at local stores.

The industry has experienced a dramatic growth spurt over the last decade because of the public’s new health consciousness. The interest in blueberries began in 1998 when the cranberry industry funded Howell and Nicholi to research urinary tract infections. Blueberries were used as a comparison and their high score surprised many individuals. The North American Blueberry Association became interested in these results and decided to pursue the health trend as a marketing initiative in order to revitalize the stagnant sales of blueberries. An import levy provided much needed funding and the NABC financed research concerning anti-oxidants and the cognitive functions of rats when fed blueberries. The studies’ results were published by several magazines, including Reader’s Digest. People began to take notice, and there you have it: the popular little health bomb that is the blueberry.

In 2005, a key player in the blueberry industry passed away. Oscar Austring served as president of the Co-Op for 27 years and was also a founding member of the NABC. The common element, the thing that every farmer who knew him would recollect, was his vision and dedication to the industry. One grower maintained that Oscar was the only farmer who was able to see the true potential in the BC blueberry industry, even when others quietly shook their heads in disbelief.