The Quebec blueberry industry is having its worst year in a decade. Up to 90% of the crops of some blueberry fields have been lost due to an early spring, late frosts and summer droughts, causing insurance claims to surge at Financière agricole.
It is too early to quantify the losses with precision, explains the president of the Union of Quebec Blueberry Producers, Daniel Gobeil. Joined on his tractor, the farmer admits that “the year has been particularly difficult”.
He himself lost “more than 90%” of his harvest, he said, noting that early spring made the plants bloom earlier than usual. “And in May, it was followed by successive frosts of several hours,” he says.
These freezes occurred at a pivotal time when the flowers were opening and being pollinated by bees. Added to this were periods of drought during the summer, he says. “I would say that it is about 75% of the harvests which were lost”, estimates for its part Dany Morin, coordinator with the direction of the union. The blueberry fields of Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean were particularly affected. “For the moment, things seem to be going well on the North Shore, where the picking is done a few weeks later,” he says.
Due to a domino effect, the entire production chain suffers the repercussions. The processor Wild Blueberries from Quebec received “about 40%” less blue berries than last year, notes its president, Jean-Pierre Senneville. The supply of blueberries grown in other regions, including the Atlantic provinces, seems to have saved the day.
However, producers’ losses immediately resulted in an increase in claims against Financière agricole. The organization’s crop insurance reimburses estimated crop losses when these exceed 20% of the usual production volume.
This year, all blueberry producers insured by Financière agricole “have recorded notices of damage”, indicates to the To have to Yves Lefebvre, regional director of the organization for Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean.
“So far, we have paid $ 5.3 million [en indemnisations] », Notes Mr. Lefebvre, while specifying that a third of the complaints must be treated in the coming days.
A market that has changed a lot
Economist Gilbert Lavoie, co-founder of the consulting firm specialized in agriculture Forest Lavoie, explains that the blueberry market has evolved over the past 10 years.
The production volume was 210 million pounds 10 years ago, of which nearly 30% came from Quebec. “But between 2014 and 2016, production increased dramatically,” he says. In 2016, producers harvested 410 million pounds of blueberries, including 126 million in Quebec, which is almost double the usual production.
This increase in supply made it possible to develop the North American, European and Japanese markets, thereby stimulating demand.
However, in 2018, the vagaries of the temperature affected production in the Atlantic provinces, reducing the quantity of blueberries available on the markets. As a result, the reserves of frozen blueberries that had previously been accessible have plummeted. “This time, it was Quebec that was hit,” he says, indicating that the reserve has been reduced to heartache.
How could we ensure better management of the small blue fruit stocks? Industry players are thinking about it. One of the avenues that could be explored would be the establishment of a “strategic reserve” of frozen blueberries, according to Mr. Lavoie.
This strategy would allow blueberries to be stored during high production years to ensure that demand can be met when harvest volume plummets.