Blueberries without borders

Blueberries have arrived from Peru in my local store. Next they’ll be coming from Chile, then Mexico. As spring moves north, they will arrive from Florida.  Then in late spring they’ll be ripening in Georgia, after that California and Oregon. Washington will start shipping in early July.

image: Investment Agriculture Foundation of British Columbia

The northward march of the blueberries ends in British Columbia, where the largest crops in Canada are grown and the season is long says Corey Mintz:

“Because of the warm, sunny weather blueberries need to thrive; many regions have a growing season of only four to six weeks. But the climate of BC allows for a longer season: nearly three months, from early July to late September (Walrus magazine October, 2018).”

B.C. returns the blueberry favour by sending them south -all over North America. Blueberry production in BC has grown from 4.3 million kilograms in 1980 to 61 million kilograms in 2017.

The fact Canada exports any produce at all may come as a surprise. We can’t compete with American growers for many other crops says James Vercammen, professor of food and resource economics at the University of British Columbia. Economies of scale, higher labour and land costs, give U.S. producers an edge.

But as the sun lingers over Canada in the summer, we have an advantage that Americans lack. Vercammen says that British Columbia is “now growing raspberries and blueberries like crazy.”

Things didn’t look so good at the start of the 2018 growing season. Blueberries, like one-third of the foods we eat, depend on pollination by bees.

Bees prefer a balanced diet. In recent years, honey producers have expressed concerns over the nutritional value of a blueberry diet alone. “It’s a single fruit,” said Kerry Clark, president of the B.C. Honey Producers’ Association, “It’s like going to a buffet and the only thing there is salsa. It doesn’t give you a balanced diet.”

Monoculture crops that cover vast areas aren’t very nutritious for bees. Weakened bees are more susceptible to disease and the wet spring this year meant that growers were applying more fungicides –also not good for bees.

That meant that owners were reluctant to send their colonies to blueberry fields. “It’s become less and less attractive, to the point where the beekeepers have decided not to bring thousands of colonies into the blueberries this year,” said Clark.

While blueberry production has increased, the number of bee hives has not kept up. One beekeeper predicted a loss because he couldn’t supply enough hives:

“There’s definitely going to be a shortage of bees in blueberries this year. It will be worse this year. The plants will be there, but the bees won’t be there to pollinate them, so they won’t get the berries.”

But all the worry turned out to be for nothing. As the damp spring turned into a sunny summer, blueberries thrived and by the end of the year there was a glut of the crop. The lower prices were good news for berry lovers but disastrous for farmers.

John Gibeau of the Honeybee Centre in Surrey was philosophical: “If it’s nice weather we do well. If it’s poor weather we do poorly. That’s farming.

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In BC Hydro’s case, ideology means higher electricity costs 

When I opened my BC Hydro bill and read the leaflet inside, I thought some transformation must have taken place.  The leaflet said that Accenture was now a B.C. business.  The last I heard, Accenture was based in Bermuda.

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Accenture has been blacklisted by California’s state treasurer for questionable business practices such as relocating to offshore tax havens.  The Ontario Auditor General slammed Accenture in 2001 for a deal to take over a government program that resulted in massive cost over-runs.  Apparently image problem is nothing that can’t be fixed by opening a B.C. office of Accenture.

The flyer said that “Accenture Business Services of BC is committed to building a world-class operation in British Columbia that will contribute to the province’s economic growth and provide employees with expanded career opportunities.”

Accenture, through BC Hydro, is trying to counter the growing opposition to the privatization of the publicly-owned utility.  People are angry that Premier Campbell has handed one-third of BC Hydro operations over to Accenture.  It’s a sweet deal — a ten year contract worth $1.45 billion.

Accenture will save BC Hydro money, Stephen Bruyneel told me. He’s the manger of Corporate Communication for BC Hydro.  He said that Accenture is contractually obliged to save $250 million over ten years.

“Exactly how would Accenture save that money?” I asked.  Well, it turns that we will never know.  Private businesses are not obliged to divulge such things.  But in general, “savings will result from economies of scale,” says Bruyneel, “by having a larger customer base.”

Accenture Business Services of British Columbia has big plans and BC Hydro is just the start. The plan is to bring other North American power companies into the B.C. office.  BC Hydro will share in those profits, Bruyneel said.

“How much profit will Accenture get from the BC Hydro contract?” Sorry, that’s a secret.

Jerri New has a problem with all this secrecy.  She’s the head of the Office & Professional Employees International Union.  Her members were not given much choice — move to Accenture or retire.

“If this is such a good deal,” Jerri New told me, “why is the government afraid to show us the details?”  The whole transfer of a public crown corporation has also been done in secret.  “It’s normal business practice when one company takes over another that hearings are held.  The shareholders of BC Hydro — the people of B.C. — were not consulted,” she said.

Jerri New also disputes BC Hydro’s claim that they could now “focus on its core business of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity.”  Some of that core work is now done by Accenture, such as monitoring water levels in dams.  “The whole computer system is integrated with BC Hydro,” said New, “it’s a matter of public safety.”

The former BC Hydro workers feel betrayed.  They are still providing Information Technology, computer networking, customer service, and building supplies but their employer is now Accenture.

She suspects that profits for Accenture will come by increasing BC Hydro rates.  Accenture is not in business as a public service – – last year they had net revenues of $11.6 billion world-wide.  Also, Accenture will save money from fewer staff.  Of the 1,600 staff that worked for BC Hydro, only about 1,450 moved to Accenture.  That alone results in over one-third of the claimed savings.

BC Hydro employees (some from Kamloops) moved to Accenture call centers in Vernon, Nanaimo, Prince George, and Vancouver.  Most call centers are not unionized, so you can be sure that when the current collective agreement expires, they will be asked to take a pay cut.  And if they don’t, call center operations can be moved to where workers will accept lower wages.

The real question is why Premier Campbell would dismantle a profitable company that provided high customer service and the lowest electricity rates in North America?

The answer is ideology.  In the premier’s mind, crown corporations and public utilities are sources of untapped profits.  Regardless of how efficient they are or how well they are operated, they are public services that must be dismantled for the corporate good.

If money and jobs flow out of the province, and if we pay higher electricity rates, Campbell considers it  a small price to pay for sake his ideology.