Historically cold spring deals another blow to BC farmers as harvest falls behind schedule

Sajan Mandair walks through rows of strawberry plants on his farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia, but only a few of them are starting to bloom, a sign that they are several weeks behind in their growth cycle.

“It’s been a challenge because of the cold weather,” he said. “It really stunted the growth of all the plants and it really slowed down the season for us.”

The excessive rainfall also made it harder to work in the fields and plants due to the mud.

“It will be sunny for a day or two and once you have everything ready to go with your tractors it will rain again,” Mandair said. “We were a little late planting this year.”

A row of strawberry plants at Mandair Farms in Abbotsford on May 12. The plants are several weeks behind their usual growth. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Fraser Valley farmers are grappling with temperatures 2C below the seasonal average, which has resulted in a number of crops – including blueberries, strawberries and raspberries – about three weeks behind schedule compared to their usual schedule.

The delays could prove costly for farmers like Mandair, who fear the slowdown could lead to greater competition from international growers at harvest time.

“We need to bring local supply to market,” he said. “If we don’t, there are other countries that come in and they are able to take that market share.”

cooler temperatures

Cool weather is just the latest challenge facing farmers in the region. Many still haven’t recovered from the aftermath of last year’s historic heat dome and floods, and unusually high fuel prices, which are driving up operating costs.

“We just can’t get a break,” said Lenore Newman, director of the University of the Fraser Valley’s Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“It’s been stable with heat domes, floods and fires, and now it’s too cold – and definitely too cold.”

Sajan Mandair says he invests in sheltered tunnels to grow berries. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

British Columbia set record temperatures for the coldest and most recent May afternoon highs, CBC News meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe said.

She also predicted that May would remain cold.

“The outlook for the second half of May is still cool. We are still under the influence of La Nina, so it is likely that our average temperatures will be below season for the next few weeks,” Wagstaffe said.

“More and more unpredictable”

Newman says the colder-than-normal farming season, coupled with ongoing weather disasters, highlights the need to grow more food indoors under more predictable conditions.

“It’s not a panacea…but as the weather becomes more and more unpredictable, we’re going to see more crops growing inside – and we’re also going to see crops growing here that we had before. used to import,” she said.

Newman said California is losing farmland to drought and heat, which means other areas, like British Columbia, may have to grow what California cannot.

Farmers like Mandair are already investing in measures to help them thrive in more unpredictable conditions. He set up high protective tunnels, called hoop houses, for some of his crops.

The skeleton of a hoop house stands above rows of strawberry plants at Mandair Farms. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“We have to find a way to not rely on all these other elements,” he said. “That’s why I try to do all these different hoop houses, try to do other ways of producing, and try to remove the variables.”

In the meantime, with many growers in the valley still recovering from the heat dome and flooding, Mandair said it was more important than ever to support local farmers to secure incomes.

He said farmers work hard to grow food locally.

“All of us farmers want to supply the market…the population is growing and we need to produce food for our people.”