ABBOTSFORD â BCâs turf industry has yet to recover from the double effects of the pandemic and the November 2021 floods, which sped up the contraction of a sector heavily concentrated in the Fraser Valley.
Sales were already on a downward trend from the sectorâs peak of $12 million in 2017, although they rebounded slightly last year to $10 million according to Statistics Canada estimates released in April. This was up slightly from $9.9 million in 2021, a level not seen since 2007 and down nearly 18% from the 2017 high.
While the number of farms has dropped by half since 2012 to just 24 last year, acreage remained steady for more than a decade at around 2,000 acres until the pandemic. Acreage dropped from 1,810 in 2020, to just 1,640 in 2021 before creeping back up to 1,727 acres in 2022.
But it remains to be seen whether the industry will rebound.
âAnecdotally, I would say that among other things, homes have gotten a lot bigger while lot sizes are getting smaller, so thereâs not a lot of room for landscape,â says Jerry Rousseau, executive director of the Western Canada Turfgrass Association, which primarily represents professional sports turf managers as well as five sod farmers.
âIâve also noticed that people donât seem to like caring for their lawns as in previous generations, even basic stuff like mowing,â Rousseau says.
Seventeen months after the November 2021 flooding, two Abbotsford sod farmers spoke to Country Life in BC about their recovery.
Rob Rindt, general manager of family-owned Western Turf Farms Ltd., lives in Langley. He grows sod on 100 acres there and 400 acres on Marion Road in Sumas Prairie, where the farmâs shop and main office are located. Itâs also where three of his four brothers as well as his parents, who started the farm in the 1950s, live.
The family was forced to flee the farm when the Nooksack River overflowed into Sumas Prairie in November 2021 and the Barrowtown pump station couldnât keep up.
A week later, Rindt was able to make the trip out to the farm by boat. He recalled smelling diesel on the trip, like âall the fuel tanks are just letting all the fuel into the water, all the chemicals, all the oil in the water.â The full impact of the contaminants has yet to be seen.
âIt was pretty crazy, just seeing everything you worked for your whole life underwater,â he says.
In addition to flooded fields and buildings, the farm lost machinery and equipment. Rindt estimates that they are millions of dollars out of pocket. Rindt turned 39 earlier this year so he has time to rebuild, but replacing everything on cash flow alone means it will be a long time before the operation â the largest in BC â is back to normal.
Western supplies golf courses, municipalities, landscape contractors, builders and homeowners in BC and Alberta with some US sales, but since the flood itâs been focused exclusively on meeting local demand.
Itâs been a challenging time for the whole family.
âTheyâre still dealing with it,â he says. âIt was pretty hard on everybody. What I have learned is how fast things can just disappear. It kind of opened my eyes to appreciate and to try to enjoy life a little bit more. Enjoy family.â
The experience is partly what led Rindt to run for Township of Langley council last fall.
âI grew up in Langley Township and the way we were going, itâs a jokeâ says Rindt. âThereâs no proper maintenance or ditching, you know, like regular annual maintenance.â
Not far from Westernâs Abbotsford operations, another turf farm, Bos Sod Farms Inc., saw its fields on Dixon Road flooded.
The farm was started in 1993 by Bert Bos, who had come to the coast from Alberta where his family ran a dairy farm after emigrating from Holland.
He specializes in sod for golf courses and sells as far as California and Ontario, but BC, Alberta, Washington and Nevada are his primary markets. He also sells to landscapers and homeowners.
âEverything that we grow is actually done on sand that we bring in,â says Bos. âSo weâre a little bit different that way.â
Bos thinks the sand actually may have helped his fields recover faster from the flooding because the drainage was a little better. He also thinks the volume of water helped dilute contaminants.
âIt wasnât waterlogged quite as long,â he says. âThe grass still looked relatively good [after the water receded] but the cold snap that happened in December, that kind of kicked the grass back pretty hard.â
He says the flood weakened the grass so it couldnât handle the unusually low temperatures. They didnât lose any crops, but remediation took extra time.
âWe had a five-month gap where we did not harvest,â says Bos. âWe were able to get back in operation in April [of 2022].â
That gap is unusual for the farm, because they normally harvest 11 or 12 months of the year. Bos notes that they were able to make up all the lost sales in the same year.
âOn the business side, it actually hasnât been too bad considering,â he says. âWeâre able to get back on our feet and carry on our business.â
Unlike Western, Bos was able to drive all of his motorized machinery to higher ground so he only lost some equipment that he couldnât move or was lower priority. But he didnât have flood insurance on his house because the premium for flood and septic backflow was so high. Because he was offered insurance but chose not to insure, Bos says he didnât quality for provincial or federal help.
âSo their reasoning is, if itâs readily and reasonably available, then you donât qualify,â he laments. âI think you could debate that. $9,000 is not a reasonable cost.â
Bos has filed an appeal, but heâs still waiting for a response.
He also thinks the upgrades and repairs that have been done to the dyke infrastructure thus far are inadequate.
âIf you donât want to do the necessary infrastructure upgrades, you have to be prepared to help out the individuals that are impacted by an event like this,â he says.
On a positive note, Bos expanded the farm and purchased 45 additional acres last year, bringing him up to a total of 165 acres and they rebuilt the office, which he says is ânew and improved.â
The BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food says the primary market for sod produced in BC is the housing industry and, to a lesser extent, sports fields and golf courses. Turfgrass production is scattered throughout the province with about two-thirds grown in the Lower Mainland, on Vancouver Island and in the Okanagan.