Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

COVID-19 Updates Features Fruit
U-Pick farms in B.C. pivot in response to COVID-19

Klaassen Farms is one of the U-Picks in B.C. finding new ways to adapt their operations for the current season and beyond.


July 13, 2020
By Brooklynn Doucette, for BC Blueberries

Topics
With plenty of Canadian residents now wary of cross-province travel, it’s difficult to know if B.C. U-Picks will have a booming customer turn-out as in years prior. Photo courtesy of Sharalee Prang/Klaassen Farms.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the normal U-Pick plans for B.C. farmers.

With plenty of Canadian residents now wary of cross-province travel, it’s difficult to know if B.C. U-Picks will have a booming customer turn-out as in years prior. The U-Pick season usually begins in July and lasts until the end of August in British Columbia.

Klaassen Farms in Chilliwack, B.C., one of approximately 50 blueberry U-Pick operations in the province, expects that this year’s U-Pick blueberry numbers will be impacted.

Advertisment

“Our U-Pick season typically runs for four weeks,” Bernadette Maguire, Klaassen Farms sales and marketing coordinator, says. She explains that with more than 87 acres of planted blueberries (14 acres allocated to U-Pick), the Klaassen operation is large enough to welcome customers from the Fraser Valley, Greater Vancouver Area, northern B.C. and Alberta.

“It is hard to say how many visitors will come through our fields this summer,” Maguire says. Last year, Klaassen customers picked roughly 50,000 pounds of U-Pick blueberries at their fields. Holding a large blueberry acreage with plenty of space, Maguire is confident that Klaassen is ready to safely welcome all customers. However, getting ready for business this season has come with a few hiccups.

Lynn Giesbrecht at RussLynn Blueberry Farm based in Abbotsford, B.C., says that her one-acre U-Pick field will still be impacted. Photo courtesy of RussLynn Blueberry Farm.

Changing tides

U-Picks across B.C. are busy reorganizing their 2020 activities after they were forced to cancel big events in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Klaassen Farms always has big plans during the summer months and come July they’re usually preparing for one of their largest annual events. This year, July looks different.

“A few years back we began hosting an annual U-Pick event. Last summer we saw almost 3,500 visitors in one day,” Maguire says. This large-scale event at Klaassen Farms brings the community together by celebrating local food vendors and their coveted blueberries. “The goal is to give back to our community and support a not-for-profit organization that helps to feed vulnerable children in Chilliwack.”

Instead of large events, farms like Klaassen pivoted to offer their customers other services. “Our U-Pick fields, roadside stands, farm store with ice cream and local B.C. products remain open,” Maguire says. The farm store sells local products such as jams, pies, blueberry muffins, blueberry lemonade, handmade soap, pottery, bees wax wraps, on top of other local goods. In addition, like many of their fellow fruit and vegetable farms across Canada, Klaassen Farms quickly adapted to offer curbside pick-up, online ordering and home delivery too.

Klaassen Farms adapted to offer curbside pick-up, online ordering and home delivery for its products. Photo courtesy of Sharalee Prang/Klaassen Farms.

Smaller U-Picks still see big impact

Lynn Giesbrecht at RussLynn Blueberry Farm based in Abbotsford, B.C., says that her one-acre U-Pick field will be impacted, and suggests that smaller farms are following the same lead.

“About 20 per cent of our crop goes to U-Pick,” Giesbrecht says. “We don’t know what to expect but we are making our field safe, as far as COVID-19 goes. We have a picnic area where people are encouraged to bring their own lunch and relax.”

By increasing social distancing, handwashing and using outdoor space, it is possible for activities to continue. Activities which are especially important for smaller businesses with less foot traffic.

Giesbrecht says her one-acre farm will continue with the U-Pick season but increase safety by increasing social distancing, handwashing and using outdoor space. Photo courtesy of RussLynn Blueberry Farm.

Temporary foreign workers and new labour practices

Farms across Canada were severely affected by the pandemic’s impact on temporary foreign workers with many delays and restrictions imposed on foreign workers travelling, including some impacts that linger today. Klaassen Farms is one of B.C.’s farms thankful to not be facing this roadblock.

“Getting foreign workers to the farms is not something that has impacted our farm, but there are hundreds of farms who have had to find solutions to address labour shortages,” Maguire says.

Looking ahead, Klaassen Farms is working with their partners at Fine Field to find an innovative alternative for farms across North America who are struggling due to the limitations on temporary foreign workers.

“We have partnered with Fine Field Netherlands,” Maguire says. “Next summer we’ll be working to distribute the Harvy200, Harvy200S and the Harvy500 picking machines.”

The Harvy machines are specifically designed to reduce manual labour while preventing ground loss, supplying the fruit with a soft landing and simplifying transportation. Instead of using foam or metal, which are both unhygienic and damaging to the fruit, the Harvy machines use a patented system of brushes which completely enclose the plants. Berries that fall outside of the brushes are caught by a flexible, hygienic sheet that slows their fall to prevent any bruising. A major innovation for both labour and hygiene, Harvy machines can be a huge help to farms with less workers in the future.

The Harvy machines are specifically designed to reduce manual labour while preventing ground loss, supplying the fruit with a soft landing and simplifying transportation.

As part of the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture’s guidelines, U-Pick customers are not allowed to bring their own containers. Photo courtesy of Sharalee Prang/Klaassen Farms.

A note to other U-Pick farms

British Columbia’s U-Pick operations are required to follow guidelines from the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture in accordance with WorkSafeBC. Following the COVID-19 U-Pick Operations document was mandatory province-wide during phase one. Farms are now allowed to be more flexible with these modifications, as long as they’re adhering to the regulations of the provincial health officer and noting their procedures in their COVID-19 management plan.

Like all U-Picks in B.C., Klaassen Farms is adjusting their practices to fit the province’s requirements while navigating their own obstacles. It’s a difficult task that stretched many farms throughout the province, and across Canada, too thin.

To help other U-Picks in B.C. and across Canada, Klaassen Farms advises farmers to find ways to adapt and thrive this season that are unique to their operation.

“We can’t be all things to all people,” Maguire says. “Focus on what you know works well for your farm, as it may be different than what others choose to do this year.”

“We can’t be all things to all people,” Maguire says. “Focus on what you know works well for your farm, as it may be different than what others choose to do this year.”

The COVID-19 U-Pick Operations document is a resource for U-Pick operations on how to maintain a safe operation.

Edit: An earlier version of this article stated that following the COVID-19 U-Pick Operations document is mandatory province-wide. This was correct during phase one, and the sentence within the story has been updated to reflect the current re-opening phase of British Columbia where the document isn’t mandatory anymore.