Strawberries are in already, and farmers frustrated

Warm weather means early fruits and veggies, but Lower Mainland farmers face water challenges

Doug Zaklan of Zaklan Heritage Farm and partner Gemma McNeill.

This year’s fruit and vegetable harvest is early thanks to the warm and dry weather, continuing a trend over the last few years.

But the lack of rain and abundant sun aren’t necessarily a boon for farmers tasked with planning their fields and arranging for labour to pick them.

“Last year it was hot and this year, it just kind of went from winter to summer right away,” said Doug Zaklan, of Zaklan Heritage Farm on 84 Avenue in Surrey.

Zaklan, 27, and his partner Gemma McNeill, 29, co-own the farming business that operates on an eight-acre parcel of land that has been in Zaklan’s family since 1928.

“It puts a lot of stress on the plants and on the farmer to be producing,” he said of the warm weather. “Farming is all about natural cycles and working with nature, so when nature throws you curve balls, you have to adapt to it. It’s really challenging.”

A farmer for the past six years, Zaklan said he’s seen a trend of warming. Some of his crops are ready for sale, earlier than last year.

But one of his biggest challenges is finding sufficient water to irrigate his land.

With no help in sight from the city, Zaklan is doing the best he can with the little water he has access to.

At Surrey Farm, John Garcia was selling strawberries by the basket at a roadside stand along King George Boulevard, with some fields also open for u-picks.

Owner Sukhi Rai said all farmers are singing a familiar refrain: there’s not enough water.

“How do we farm these lands without any water rights,” Rai said. “We’re not allowed to take water from the river.”

Rai said he doesn’t dedicate much of his farmland to strawberries anymore because there’s no more money in it. At one point, they used to grow strawberries on 100 acres.

But without a reliable source of water, farmers are finding it tough to grow much of anything.

“I’ve been farming since 1989. I’m 36 now. I had to get away from it. I couldn’t support the house with it.”

And with the high cost of farmland, there’s no young generation of farmers getting into this line of work.