A mechanical harvester navigates beneath the protective netting at Jason Smith's Abbotsford blueberry farm. Smith says the netting is no longer practical because of rising costs and declining berry prices.

A mechanical harvester navigates beneath the protective netting at Jason Smith's Abbotsford blueberry farm. Smith says the netting is no longer practical because of rising costs and declining berry prices.

(With video) Cost of nets over cannons no longer affordable for Abbotsford blueberry growers

Farmers cite impact of rising expenses and declining fruit prices



This could be the last season Jason Smith uses netting to protect his Abbotsford blueberry crop.

Smith started hanging the nets over his Sim Road farm in Matsqui Prairie in 1998, following the lead of his father, Harvey Smith, who put up nets after losing almost all of his berry crop to starlings a few years earlier.

The nets were pricier than propane cannon scare devices, but once up, there was no need for further maintenance.

But now, with berry prices going down and expenses up, Smith doubts he can continue the practice.

“That’s probably something (netting) that we’re not going to be able to do,” Smith told The News Monday.

“In today’s marketplace, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Smith, who just stepped down as chair of the B.C. Blueberry Council, estimates there are no more than eight blueberry farms still using netting among the 800 blueberry growers who belong to the umbrella group that speaks for the industry.

“It (netting) is really expensive,” Smith said.

Among other things, the dozens of telephone-line-sized wooden poles the netting is strung from have gone from costing $125 each to $300, Smith said.

There is also a higher labour cost of having people put the netting up and taking it down each season, adding about $800 an acre in costs, Smith estimated.

If he wants to keep birds at bay without netting, Smith says his most likely alternative is audible bird scare devices – the propane cannons that have generated a flood of complaints from Abbotsford residents who object to the loud explosions the cannons emit to startle birds.

“A farmer’s got to protect his crop.”

Other approaches might involve drones, or “kids on motorcycles” shooing the birds away, Smith said.

A few farms away from Smith, Wayne and Colleen Sandberg are also considering alternatives to the nets at their Page Road farm.

The Sandbergs estimate it cost them $80,000 to set up the system of poles and wire-supported netting, and $15,000 annually in labour and maintenance to put the netting up and take it down.

To make enough to cover the extra cost of using netting, prices need to be above a dollar a pound, and at present, blueberries are selling as low as 65 cents per pound.

After more than 10 years, the gear they use is nearing the end of its useful life, and carrying on would require, among other things, replacing 94 wooden poles at $300 each.

If they stop using nets, the Sandbergs would prefer not to use noisemakers.

“We’re going to look at other options,” Colleen said. “We never did cannons.”

Wayne is also reluctant to switch to propane cannons, but he doesn’t criticize his neighbours, who use the devices to keep birds off their blueberry crops.

“They don’t bother me. I know these guys are just trying to farm,” he says.

If the Sandbergs don’t use nets and they want to avoid noisemakers, the options are limited. Among them are drones, which can only remain airborne for short periods and are subject to increasingly complicated aviation regulations.

Another possibility is using bright laser light to startle birds, but is something that could also could pose a potential hazard to aircraft, Wayne noted.

Both the Sandbergs and Smith say that in Abbotsford, where hungry starlings are many, doing nothing is not a choice. They have seen the birds ravage acres of berries.

“The year before we put the netting up, we lost 60 per cent of our crop,” Colleen said.

According to one estimate, 11,000 starlings use Abbotsford as a communal roost. The invasive species was introduced into North America in the 1800s from Europe and the population quickly grew to more than 200 million.

Last month, Abbotsford city council approved enforcement of new regulations limiting the use of propane cannons on a farm.

The bylaw allows audible bird scare devices to operate from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m or sunrise to sunset – whichever is less – with a break between noon and 3 p.m. Single-shot cannons can fire once every five minutes and multiple-shot devices can blast 11 times per hour for a maximum of 33 shots.

Fines start at $200 for a first offence, $300 for a second, and rise to $500 for third and subsequent offences.

There is also a $300 fine for failing to update bird management records.

Harvester

A mechanical harvester works beneath the protective netting at Jason Smith’s Abbotsford blueberry farm. Smith says the netting is no longer practical because of rising costs and declining berry prices. DAN FERGUSON

Netting

 

Wayne and Colleen Sandberg grow blueberries under bird-proof netting at their Abbotsford farm. DAN FERGUSON

 

Just Posted

Raeya Evie Duncan was the 100th baby born at Chilliwack General Hospital for the month of May. She is seen here with her parents Alysha Williams and Andrew Duncan on June 12, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Baby boom in Chilliwack as record number of infants born at CGH in May

‘COVID babies are coming out,’ says dad of 100th baby born at Chilliwack General Hospital last month

Syringes prepared with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Long Beach, Calif., Friday, March 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Walk-ins welcome at upcoming G.W. Secondary vaccine clinic

Second consecutive Saturday Fraser Health has scheduled a same-day clinic in a Chilliwack school

Migrating sockeye in the Fraser River August 7, 2007. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
First Nations, commercial, and recreational harvesters join forces to save Fraser River fish

‘We have to work together to rebuild these stocks while there is still time,’ says delegate

Vancouver courthouse. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Man loses bid to appeal conviction for 1999 rape at Abbotsford music festival

James Redden, 53, formerly of Nanaimo, was found guilty in 2019 following six-day trial

Dozens of demonstrators gathered in March at the Hope Station House, showing support for preserving the 1916 building. (Photo/Christian Ward)
New reports breathe life into efforts to save the Hope Station House

The documents were presented to District of Hope Council at a meeting June 14

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

The B.C. government’s vaccine booking website is busy processing second-dose appointments, with more than 76 per cent of adults having received a first dose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations stable for Tuesday

108 new confirmed cases, 139 in hospital, 39 in intensive care

A worker, at left, tends to a customer at a cosmetics shop amid the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Half of cosmetics sold in Canada, U.S. contain toxic chemicals: study

Researchers found that 56% of foundations and eye products contain high levels of fluorine

Most Read