Bill Zylmans abandoned three-quarters of a million dollars worth of his crops, now rotting in the ground. His barns, overflowing with potatoes last year, are almost empty.
“You just walk in and out of your barns and you go, ‘These aren’t going to get filled. These aren’t going to get filled this year,’” he said.
Zylmans hasn’t seen such devastation in the 50 years his family has operated the W&A Farms in Richmond.
He is not alone.
Fraser Valley farmers expect to lose $35 million this year after heavy September rain reduced their harvesting season to 10 days.
Farmers say government aid and food prices must increase for them to return to work next March.
Workers laid off
Richmond farmers have been scrambling to get their crops out of the ground before the end of October.
Zylmans had 80 acres of potatoes left after Thanksgiving.
“It’s basically a salvage operation at this point,” he said. “You’re just trying to get enough product to satisfy your customers and keep your business alive.”
He’s laying off 15 of his 18 workers this fall.
All 39 potato farmers from Richmond to Chilliwack lost crops.
According to a B.C. Vegetable Marketing Commission report, the estimated losses in the Fraser Valley are:
- 48,814 tons potatoes
- 4,680 tons carrots
- 1,566 tons cabbage
- 1,207 tons beets
- 962 tons bush beans
In Richmond, W&A Farms, G.J. Farms and J.S. Nature Farms lost potatoes.
Farmers who grew more elevated crops or harvested early avoided large losses.
Getting the government’s attention
Many farmers will go out of business if they don’t receive government aid by March, Zylmans said. Some farmers have already abandoned their crops.
“What happened in the Fraser Valley has gone unnoticed,” said Richmond Councillor Harold Steves. “We haven’t heard much response.”
Richmond City Council sent a letter to the provincial and federal governments this week asking for financial support for farmers.
Farmers can collect crop insurance on abandoned fields, but insurance will not cover the farmers’ losses, Steves said.
Insurance is not available for some vegetables including beets. Premiums for other crops are not worth the returns, Zylmans said.
Zylmans met with the Minister of Agriculture and Lands last week to pressure for changes to the insurance programs.
He said negotiations may be “back to ground zero” after Monday’s unexpected cabinet shuffle replaced veteran farmer Steve Thomson with Liberal MLA Ben Stewart as Minister.
Fighting over food prices
Poor harvests are the most recent blow to local farmers. Farmers say that food prices need to go up for them to survive.
“It’s unfortunate that we need to have a natural disaster like we’re going through to get the prices to increase,” Zylmans said. “Farmers have been working below the mark all the way along.”
Prices are expected to rise 30 per cent by January because of the poor harvests, according to the Richmond Food Security Society.
W&A Farms and J.S. Nature Farms already raised prices on their produce.
But retailers are choosing to import from abroad rather than buy from local farmers.
Kin’s Farm Market and Save on Foods in Richmond order most of their vegetables from California and Mexico to keep prices low.
“We can’t meet even one per cent of the demand with local products,” said Colin Serak of the Save on Food’s produce department.
Price hikes and dwindling supplies will make it harder to buy local food, said Arzeena Hamir, the co-ordinator of the Richmond Food Security Society.
This warning comes as local food movements gain momentum through the 100-mile diet and Metro Vancouver’s new Regional Food System Strategy.
Richmond resident Lase Batcheller is willing to pay more to support the farmers.
“Farmers should make a decent wage,” she said. “Why should they work slave wages?”
A 30 per cent price increase is needed, Hamir said.
The increase will be too late for Tai On Farm, which closed this fall after 40 years of business. Owner Helen Jang laid out objects and unsold herbs on the front yard as she cleaned the house over the weekend.
Zylmans plans to continue farming.
“We’ll survive unlike some others that I am fighting for now,” he said. “We can’t wait to get rid of this year, get it behind us and start over.”