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B.C. helps fund blueberry farmers against U.S. trade commission investigation

Last Updated Dec 30, 2020 at 6:22 pm PDT

Cartons of wild blueberries are for sale at a roadside stand in Woolwich, Maine on July 27, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Robert F. Bukaty

VICTORIA — British Columbia is making a financial contribution to help blueberry farmers fight a looming trade investigation in the United States over imported berries, including from Canada.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer requested an investigation by the U.S. International Trade Commission in September after reports that domestic farmers are being hurt by cheaper imported berries.

Ravi Kahlon, B.C.’s minister for jobs and economic recovery, says the province is giving Ottawa about $80,000 for economic research to strengthen Canada’s legal strategy ahead of a hearing next month.

Kahlon says the vast majority of Canada’s fresh blueberry exports to the United States come from about 800 blueberry growers in B.C., while overall, Canada is a top importer of fresh U.S. blueberries.

The trade commission could recommend tariffs or quotas if it finds U.S. blueberry growers have been injured or are under the threat of injury by imports, but Kahlon says he’s optimistic about a positive outcome since Canada’s share of the U.S. berry market has decreased in recent years.

The first hearing in the investigation is set for Jan. 12.

“The irony of the whole thing is that Canada, overall, actually imports more blueberries than we export to the U.S. It just happens to be that B.C. is the major producer,” Kahlon said in an interview Wednesday.

A report from Lighthizer’s office shows that Peru is the top exporter of blueberries to the United States by value. Its berry exports were worth about $12.6 million in 2014 and it increased to more than $485 million by 2019.

Chile and Mexico were second and third last year, while Canada’s blueberry exports to the States came in fourth, valued at almost $116 million. That’s up from just under $102 million five years earlier.

Anju Gill, the executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council, says the cost of responding to trade investigations can exceed $1 million, so the B.C. and federal governments are supporting industry organizations as a legal team prepares a case.

“We feel that there is no injury from the Canadian perspective,” said Gill, adding there hasn’t been a marked surge of Canadian berries into the States.

In a letter to Lighthizer in September, members of Congress from Maine advocated for blueberry producers north of the border, saying the state’s blueberry processing industry depends on bulk imports from Canada.

The processors turn excess perishable berries into frozen products ready for distribution and sale, the members explained.

“These bulk imports do not harm Maine’s domestic growers of wild blueberries, but rather these operations allow many of Maine’s blueberry businesses to survive,” their letter reads.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2020.

The Canadian Press