Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

B.C.'s fruit production drops amid climate and market pressures

In B.C., grapes and blueberries took the biggest hits as extreme heat and cold impacted crops.
Danielle Bellefleur shows off her apples at Fruit Forest Farm in Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley. The farm owner says she has deployed a number of strategies to retain soil moisture amid sustained drought conditions.

Canada’s fruit production fell 8.1 per cent last year as dry conditions and swings in temperature across the country’s west drove reduced yields, new data from Statistics Canada shows. 

At a national level, the sale of blueberries fell the furthest, declining by nearly a third, while cranberry sales dropped 22 per cent in 2023. British Columbia saw the third largest decline in sales, falling $8.9 million after Quebec and New Brunswick. 

“Fruit growers in British Columbia were challenged by difficult growing conditions, such as untimely frost and extreme heat,” said Statistics Canada in a release Friday. 

B.C. led all provinces with a more than 14 per cent decline in apple production, more than double that of a far second Quebec.

Ryan Swanson, who co-owns Laughing Apple Farm on Saltspring Island, B.C., with his wife, said the number of juicing apples they produced dropped about 30 per cent last year, the result of a tent caterpillar infestation and swings in temperature that impact blossoms. 

In some big trees, he found nests of caterpillar cocooned every cubic metre. Once hatched, the insects defoliated most of the early leaves and forced the trees to expend energy that otherwise would have gone into growing apples, said the farmer.

“The webs were just everywhere,” Swanson said. “It was devastating.” 

Swanson says that as temperatures increase, pests have become a more frequent problem. At the same time, he said he’s lucky to grow in a micro-climate where he doesn’t need irrigation as little soil moisture is lost to the atmosphere. 

Other farmers are not so fortunate.

'I just could not keep the trees watered enough'

At Fruit Forest Farm in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, Danielle Bellefleur grows a variety of crops, from blueberries and raspberries, to apples, cherries and peaches. 

Across B.C., snowpack levels are 40 per cent below normal, the lowest level in the past 45 years. On Vancouver Island, it's even worse, raising the prospect of extended drought, according to the BC River Forecast Centre.

Bellefleur says this year is shaping up to be the latest in run of dry years she has seen on the farm. And the longer drought conditions last, the more her crops demand water from the ground. That puts stress on the trees, in some cases, “cooking off” the apples. 

“The bees, they just can’t fly around. It’s hot, it’s cold,” Bellefleur said. “I haven’t had any cherries for two years. Our spring temperatures have been fluctuating so much.” 

“I just could not keep the trees watered enough to stop the evaporation.”

To combat the drought conditions, Bellefleur has tripled up on redundancies, applying a layer of mulch, using drip irrigation and sealing the soil with landscape cloth to prevent evaporation. 

That all adds up to a lot of hard work, including three weeks just to pound the landscape cloth into the ground. None of those measures will guard against insects like the coddling moth, which burrows into apples and remains a persistent threat, Bellefleur said.

“The big change I saw last year was the amount of insects that really do well in these long, dry summers,” she said. “I think a lot of people just have to start thinking about stuff like that.” 

“It’s just the way it is.” 

Growing retail share forces apple growers into tough decision

Some of the national declines in fruit production were offset by favourable weather in Ontario, where a 43 per cent spike in grape production led above-average yields. In the Okanagan Valley, climate had little impact on apple crops, say several farmers and industry associations. 

Tom Davison, who owns Davison Orchards in Vernon, said apple crops are relatively hardy. The couple thousand bins of apples he grew last year was higher than average for his fourth-generation operation. He attributes most of the provincial decline in apple production last year to farmers planting fewer trees every year. 

“The apple industry in B.C. has been shrinking in the last few years,” he said. “The problem is really a marketing one. It’s about pricing that’s not giving high enough returns.”  

Peaches have been a different story — after 40 years without losing a crop, Davison says the last three years have been a bust. His solution has been to diversify. Today, the operation produces apple juice and runs a cafe where they bake their own pies. 

“The more you diversify, the more you’re protected,” Davison said.

Many other orchards appear to be turning away from apples altogether. While half of B.C.'s fruit tree acreages are made up of apple trees, those numbers declined eight per cent between 2015 and 2020, according to a report from the Ministry of Agriculture. 

A 2021 blueprint intending to stabilize the industry noted many growers worried about a significant decline in apple quality and quantity. 

Glen Lucas, general manager of the BC Fruit Growers' Association, said he is working on a new marketing plan that would offset the power increasingly concentrated in the hands of retailers and ensure apple farmers get more money for their fruit.

“Without that, we have this diminishing return,” Lucas said. “We see the retailer margins increasing.” 

A turn to lucrative but vulnerable crops

The price crunch on apples has helped convince many farmers in the Okanagan Valley to tear up apple orchards and turn to planting grapes and cherries, Davison says. 

The problem is that both crops are more vulnerable to swings in temperature, which along with wildfire, has been a regular occurrence for several seasons in a row.

“It seems like we’ve been on a roll,” Davison said.

The latest 2023 data from Statistics Canada shows grapes faced the steepest decline in B.C. fruit yields, with labrusca grape production falling nearly 28 per cent and vinifera grapes taking a more than 23 per cent hit. Experts say swings in cold weather were to blame.

Blueberries — another high-value crop farmers have increasingly turned to in the Fraser Valley — saw a 16 per cent drop in what industry experts attributed to a spring heat wave that impacted the ability of bees to pollinate. 

So far this year, extreme weather has already led to even more devastating consequences. 

This week, Lucas said an extreme cold snap in January killed about 75 per cent of the cherry crop. Grape growers disclosed the freeze led to catastrophic losses. 

“We’re looking at a 100 per cent loss on grapes,” Lucas said.