No processor means no early season cash
by PETER MITHAM
CHILLIWACK – The first crop Shoker Farms harvests each spring is rhubarb, a staple of backyard gardeners across the country.
Commercial bakers buy the tangy stalks diced and frozen for pie, muffins and other products. But this winter, Quebec-based Nature’s Touch Frozen Foods Inc. in Abbotsford found itself with a million pounds of frozen rhubarb after buyers opted for cheaper rhubarb from Poland which produced a bumper crop.
“It’s the first time that we’re stuck with such an inventory,” says René Morissette, who oversees frozen food purchasing for Nature’s Touch, which primarily serves the retail market. “We purchased over a million pounds of rhubarb last season, and we have yet to sell this 2018 rhubarb crop.”
Growers like Shoker Farms received word in January that Nature’s Touch wouldn’t be buying any rhubarb this season. There was no contract, so growers had no recourse.
Shoker grows about 50 acres of rhubarb, sales of which provide an important source of cash early in the season. The money covers start-up costs before sales of strawberries, blueberries and vegetables begin. This helps to reduce dependence on bank financing, making the business more sustainable.
“It’s an early cash cow,” says Bill Shoker, who with his brother Bob operate the family farm.
The family began growing rhubarb 20 years ago, and increased production significantly 10 years ago as demand from processors increased. The farm harvested about 600,000 pounds last year, or about a third of the total BC harvest of 1.9 million pounds.
While it may be easy for homeowners to grow, rhubarb is a big investment for commercial growers. One crown costs $8, meaning each acre costs about $45,000 to plant. Growing conditions in Chilliwack are favourable, but the plant takes up to three years to reach full production.
The crop has filled a niche for the farm, and Shoker says not having an outlet this year underscores how important it is to his farm and others. With labour costs “through the roof,” and packing materials not to mention crop inputs becoming more expensive, the cash is important as margins continue to be squeezed and farmers face more and more paperwork just to get product to market.
Morrissette empathizes; in many ways, Nature’s Touch is in a similar position.
“A plant like us, we get it going with rhubarb,” he says. “It’s a cost-covering exercise to get the plant ready for the bigger season which, in our case, is blueberries.”
Rhubarb from Poland has flooded the market on previous occasions but demand has been good in recent years. But the latest wave has left Nature’s Touch scrambling for buyers.
“I would take any offer at this point,” says Morrissette, who notes that there’s not enough demand at retail to absorb all the frozen product.
“There are some years when there’s absolutely no Polish rhubarb making its way to North America, and these are years when domestic rhubarb takes its place and has more marketability,” he says. “We’ve been trying to increase [retail] demand, but the big taker is still the baking industry.”
Shoker is also trying to find outlets. The farm began supplying rhubarb to the fresh market two years ago, and is working with BC Fresh Vegetables Inc. to find a home for this year’s crop, which began being harvested last month. It could simply mow down the stalks, but that wouldn’t make up for lost cash flow.
Selling into the fresh market isn’t an easy task, however. While a market exists, it’s limited compared to demand for frozen product.
“This isn’t a mainstream item,” says BC Fresh CEO Murray Driediger. “There’s not enough fresh market to absorb all the rhubarb grown in the Fraser Valley.”
Processing capacity is a particular challenge for rhubarb growers, as for growers of many other crops. Just one vegetable processor remains in the Lower Mainland and while some berry growers have set up lines to process and freeze fruit, they can’t necessarily handle rhubarb. This leaves rhubarb growers at risk when markets change.
“The industry here was developed mainly for processing,” says Driediger. “The processing option doesn’t look promising for 2019. … It’s really put the industry in a bad state.”
Morrissette, for his part, hopes markets normalize enough for Nature’s Touch to be back in the rhubarb game next year.
Vol. 105 Issue 5
STORIES IN THIS EDITION
What on earth?
Opposition slams ALC bill
Sidebar: Protection & pushback
Editorial: Truth in labelling
Back Forty: So you don’t believe in climate change
Viewpoint: Don’t blame the cows for global warming
Ag council’s lobbying efforts produce results
Learning a new skill
Foundation’s nest egg for funding projects increases
Province will hold the line on piece rates
New CEO aims to kindle team spirit at co-op
FIRB decision prompts rethink of pricing scheme
Beekeepers see potential in technology transfer
AgSafe markes quarter century
Raspberries hit hard by harsh February
Blueberry growers anxious for new varieties
Biological controls for pests in demand
Sidebar: Pesticides in play
Growers urged to focus on fresh
Westgen celebrates 75 years of excellence
Top seller was no-show at Holstein sale
Spring show attracts exhibitors from Quebec
Cheesemakers unite to grow niche market
Range use permits under greater scrutiny
Sidebar: Range use plans go digital
Market Musings: Top bulls sell for top dollar at spring sales
Grapegrowers share sustainability objectives
Grape specialist honoured for dedication
Hazelnut production expands across BC
Sidebar: Pest pressures
Supporters take to AITC’s Sips & Sprouts
Research: Cultured meat fails to impress researchers
UAVs undergo testing for pesticide delivery
Sustainability goes beyond saving farmland
Father and daughter roll with the last of the steel wheels
Woodshed: Susan Henderson is warming to country life
Wannabe: Farming is more than just a job
Surplus, cull fruit finds new purpose as tasty snacks
Jude’s Kitchen: Special food for special moms