Wild blueberry growers need to become more efficient

by Peter Burgess

FF Dec. 18 Peter Burgess.JPG

Wild blueberry farmers have had three very hard years in a row. They’ve experienced two years of historically low farm gate prices, followed by an extreme weather event that impacted yields severely in many parts of Nova Scotia.

In the end, the freeze event of 2018 ended up being much worse for many growers, as most had already applied most of their inputs and had very little opportunity to recoup any of those costs. This has led to ultra-low cash flow, hard management decisions, and difficult discussions with lenders. Many are in survival mode at this point and are finding optimism a luxury.

Considering all of this, it does appear that the industry has turned a corner. The big question many are asking now is: how do farmers find a way to capitalize on a rebounding industry and lessen the impacts of another downturn in the years ahead?

The last three years have reminded us of some universal truths of farming.

First and foremost, Mother Nature is in control and she often plays the biggest role in our success or failure. Extremes in weather may be the norm with a changing climate, so farmers are starting to look hard at field sites and determine if it makes sense to continue on “marginal land.” Fields prone to flooding, frost damage, and winter injury due to a lack of snow cover are being looked at closely. The bottom line is that fields that can’t yield well consistently are not profitable in the long run. There are options that could help manage conditions and may lead to more consistent yields from year to year, such as windbreaks, irrigation, and drainage. But to justify these infrastructure costs, yield potential estimations need to be realistic and very healthy.

A second truth is that lean times in farming highlight our inefficiencies. When margins are healthy, farmers tend to pay for equipment that might be more than they need. The operation and underutilization of oversized equipment in lean years can be very challenging. Properly sizing your equipment for the jobs required saves money both upfront and in operation.

A third truth is that we tend to oversimplify complex systems. Again, when margins are healthy, blanket prescriptions for every field make it easier to plan and easier to get the job done. However, in lean times, we see how blanket applications waste product or don’t account for unique challenges in specific fields. This tends to increase input costs overall and reduce individual field yield potentials. Growers are looking at more complex field and sub-section prescriptions to deal with the complex challenges of a wild blueberry system. That requires more knowledge of each field and a constant decision-making process, but it can save on out-of-pocket costs and optimize yields for a better return.

We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years, but farming wild blueberries like your father or grandfather used to is no longer possible. Just owning a field with wild blueberries on it does not mean you will make money. Farming has become a scientific and input-intensive endeavour, and close attention needs to be paid to the return on investment for every input on every field.

More consideration needs to be made around decreasing capital costs through unique but perhaps old ideas such as sharing equipment with friends and neighbours. For example, if it takes you four days to mow your entire acreage, why would you solely own a $15,000-mower? Four neighbouring farms could share that cost and better utilize that piece of equipment. Similarly, can farms in a given area coordinate and bulk purchase inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides? Purchasing large volumes of inputs as a group could decrease the cost per unit.

There are multiple different business models that should be explored to see if they make sense for each individual farm. There is one certain thing: how we grow wild blueberries and manage our farms needs to change with the changing industry in front of us.

(Peter Burgess is a wild blueberry specialist with Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc. based in Bible Hill, N.S. He works closely with the wild blueberry industry in Nova Scotia to assist producers with production, pest identification, pest controls, and whole system management issues.)