If anyone knows the B.C. strawberry market, it’s Bill Zylmans out at W&A Farms on Westminster Highway and No. 8 Road.
His family has been farming the famous red berry in Richmond since harvesting a half-acre in 1948.
So he was more than a little surprised last week to hear on the radio and see on the TV his local strawberry rival — Ravinder Gill of the 100-acre Birak Berry Farms on No. 6 Road — ceremoniously dumping a truckload of his product onto the roadside in front of the media.
Gill was protesting the fact that the major B.C. strawberry processing plants are now importing the vast majority of their product from California and Mexico, rendering him “hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket” this season.
However, Zylmans said, in the spring, Gill sat around the same table as himself, other local growers and the processing plant bosses where they were informed, in no uncertain terms, that there wasn’t much need for their strawberries this year.
“We were told by the processors that they could get their strawberries for 25 cents per pound from California,” said Zylmans, a second-generation farmer.
“They said, ‘we really don’t need your strawberries anymore.’ It costs me around 50 cents per pound to harvest, so why would I bother?
“I have just 15 acres to grow on, so I’m surprised that (Gill) is growing strawberries on 100 acres. I’m not sure who he planned to sell them to.”
Gill told the News he sold more than 200,000 pounds of strawberries to the processors last season, but managed to get rid of just 15,000 pounds in the season that’s just finished.
“They’ve stopped buying from local farmers and many of us are just having to plow the fields to get rid of them,” Gill said.
“We were already selling them at a low price, but we’ve been undercut again by the Californian and Mexican producers.
“We’re definitely going to run at a loss this year, because I still need to pay for the labour as the blueberry season is coming.
Gill is demanding the provincial government step in to either promote or subsidize the local market better.
Zylmans, on the other hand, questions why someone would grow hundreds of thousands of pounds of a product that has no market.
“My father started with half an acre here in 1948 and we now have 15 acres for strawberries; that’s just about the right size for the local market,” said Zylmans, who only grows to supply local stores and for the u-pick market.
“The market has changed dramatically in B.C. and in Richmond over the years and we’ve had to adapt to that to survive.
“With things like the minimum wage in B.C., it’s getting expensive to buy our strawberries and I don’t blame the processing plants for looking at ways to cut their costs as well.”
Zylmans added that it’s been “common knowledge” for some time in the farming community that the locally grown strawberry appeals to an ever-decreasing market.
“The average size of a strawberry farm in the Fraser Valley is around 15 to 20 acres and there used to be 38 growers, now there’s just 15,” he added.
“Those numbers should tell their own story. I sold just 10,000 pounds to the (processing) plants last year and this year none at all. That’s why I don’t even rely on them to sell my product.
“We’ve been changing our business to accommodate the trends. We don’t just grow something with no idea of where it’s going.”