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A Tale Of Two Farmers

Two BC blueberry farmers relate their experience of the 2021 flooding that has destroyed their livelihood.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… no, scratch all that. The year 2021 for farmers in British Columbia involved: Covid and its implied labour difficulties; too much heat that burnt the crops; and devastating flooding to end the year before full harvesting could be completed that also drowned thousands of livestock and upended lives up and down the ag spectrum.

A so-called Pineapple Express weather system from down near the Hawaiian Islands brought torrential rainstorm after torrential rainstorm to the Pacific Northwest between early November to mid-December that impacted thousands of lives within the ag sector causing millions, if not billions in damages to the whole area.

We’ve all seen the news… the images of farms submerged under floodwaters, farm animals drowning—simply a horrific scene of chaos that looked like something out of an end-of-the-world apocalyptic movie. Only this was real life for farmers.

Worse yet, in an area where flooding is an extremely rare event, few farmers carried an insurance policy that covered flooding. No insurance payout.

But, forget about the money, the stress and emotional toil the disaster has taken on all involved, is heartbreaking. And it’s everywhere.

CAAR Communicator talked with two Abbotsford, B.C. blueberry farmers in the Sumas Prairie region where over 1,200 acres of the fields were flooded, where waters killed their bushes and their hopes for the upcoming season or 10. We asked about their experience with the flood, how they are coping, and what the future has planned for them as farmers.

 

Gurdip Khaira

Even though he knew the rains were coming non-stop, he didn’t expect the dike to burst its seams spreading water all over his fields.

Although luckier than most in the Sumas Prairie area—the floodwaters got to his house, but only had six inches of water in the slightly lowered elevated garage—Gurdip Khaira, 41, has still suffered a huge set-back with regards to his livelihood.

He began farming in 2002, growing a large swathe of blueberries, some raspberries, and fields of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peas and beans over 300+ acres. While some of the berries are fresh, the remainder of the crops are for processors, and are picked and then refrigerated for later delivery.

“Water in the fields was already pretty high on November 15, but when the dike broke the next day, some places were submerged up to 10 feet,” related Khaira. “There was some 5’-6’ feet of water around my house, but while there was some water in there, we were lucky. Some families had the second-story of their home damaged by the flowing waters.”

Of his 35 acres of blueberries, because of the rise and fall of the land, about 15 acres of bushes were severely damaged after being underwater for three weeks. He said tools, tractors and other farm equipment were all damaged by the water.

“And, all of the vegetable land is still under water.”

That’s 170 acres gone.

While Khaira said that the blueberries had already been harvested, the flooding has killed the bushes. Unlike conventional crops, one can’t simply replant a blueberry bush.

His blueberry bushes were all in the 10 to 12-year-old range—reaching an optimal age for crop provision. Having to replant with new bushes—about two years of age—will take about four more years for them to mature enough to even begin to produce a good crop.

As for the rest of his crops, Brussel sprouts and broccoli were still in the field. He also related that over the summer, the heat in the area was intense, and that “broccoli likes the cooler weather. We were going to complete our harvesting by the 14th of November,” he noted, “but the rainy weather prevented us from getting to it. And then the dike gave way, and everything became submerged.

“I’m not sure how we recover from that.”

If Khaira was looking for help, it was from the Provincial and Federal governments.

In late November, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said that it was going to take time for the water to recede so that the full scale of the damages could be accessed.

He acknowledged that the flooding had severely impacted farmers and that there were agricultural programs in place to help—but that there were gaps. As such, he said that the provincial government would be working with the Government of Canada to get the B.C. farmers affected by the waters the help they needed.

Well over a month later and into the new year (early January 2022 as of this writing), Khaira said he and the other similarly affected farmers, are still awaiting to hear from either the province or the feds.

“Forget about profit,” exclaimed Khaira, “just give us money to pay our bills. The government has not been of any help to us yet.”

He noted that many other farmers are having the same issues, and frustration has become a part of the daily life. “Without the ability to turn a profit, we may no longer qualify to receive financial aid from a government program.”

As for the future, Khaira was exasperated: “I don’t know what we are going to do.”

He said that his fields are pretty messed up now, with gravel strewn across his fields after the dike broke. It’s still there, knowing he must clear it away—but at least government officials have assessed the damages to his property.

“Being a farmer, we know that we have to work our butt off, and even then, you don’t know if you’re going to have a successful year,” he said. “This year we had crops burning in the field from the heat—24 acres of cauliflower, with only about five acres of it being good.

“And we had a difficult time finding enough labour to harvest because of Covid—and then this…” he said with his voice trailing off.

But, with defiance back in his voice, he avowed that his family would continue to move forward.

“I don’t have any plans in place right now. However, I have no choice but to continue farming—just at a reduced rate.

“I really like the lifestyle and I love this part of the world,” he said. “I’d still live in the area even if I wasn't farming anymore—but I am a farmer.”

However, he did express concern that farming for the next few seasons would come with additional concerns. Because of the waters all over the fields, even when it dried, he was concerned that a fungus could grow that would affect plant growth.

“With water everywhere, the diseases will come,” said Khaira, sighing that new and more expensive pesticides and fertilizers were going to be required. “And some are extremely hard to get rid off. And even then, there’s a type where we won’t be able to grow in the soil for five or six years. All of the vegetable guys are worried.

“And like all the other farmers in the area, I don’t know what we are going to do in the Spring.”

 

Dave Deol

If you think that Gurdip Khaira had it bad, Dave Deol can unfortunately one-up him.

Also a blueberry farmer in the area, Deol owns 160 acres, with 156 of them just for blueberries. His farm was completely swallowed by the flood.

The events are etched into his weary mind. “On November 16, the dike broke and almost immediately two to three feet of water flooded the property.

“And then it rose another foot every hour.”

The waters kept rising as the rainstorms brought with it more wet stuff, and by December 9, Deol said that there was around 13’ to 14’ of water in his field.

Just as bad, his house and shop area were under about 10’ or 11’ feet of water.

“Twice I travelled around the area in a motorboat,” said the soft-spoken Deol. “It was like a lake, not a farm.”

Along with the destroyed blueberry bushes—17 years of work—Deol said that the waters covered two tractors, a pair of harvester machines, a couple of ATVs… everything.

“The waters have receded,” he said, “but there is still so much garbage in the fields. Rocks, silt and garbage.”

Deol also noted that the government had come by to do an assessment on his property many weeks previous, but even after the Winter holidays, he has still not heard back about their plans. Which means he doesn’t know what to do to go forward.

A very sad Deol said: “I don’t even know if I want to quit or not. I need the government to help. Why isn’t the government helping?”

He related that the flooding issue was more of a city problem than weather, even though they are related.

Yes, there was a lot of rain for days upon days, but that’s why a dike was in place—to protect the people, livestock and crops. But when it failed, Deol noted “It’s not a rainwater problem, it was a dike problem.”

He said that there had been concerns over the strength and vitality of the dike for years, something he and other farmers had tried to broach with the local government to no avail.

“Only the Red Cross has provided us with aid, a gift of $2,000 for much-appreciated groceries,” he lamented. “The governments—nothing.”

If Deol sounded bitter, it’s because he is. And sad.

“I’m 52-years-old and I have to start again.

“My life is gone.”

 

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