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It's always a berry good year in the Valley!

Blessed with the highest number of frost-free days and most rain in the province, the Lower Mainland is a farming paradise.

Agriculture built communities on the prairies and uploads south of the Fraser River that now make up the City of Abbotsford.

There was a time when talking agriculture in Abbotsford meant talking raspberries, strawberries or dairy, but times are changing.

"We've been growing raspberries for 50 or more years in the Valley," says Mark Sweeney, berry specialist with B.C Ministry of Agriculture.

"And if you look at the development of Abbotsford, which 50 years ago was very rural, raspberries and strawberries were huge parts of the economy."

All three industries still thrive, but local farmers have discovered strength in diversification.

"Raspberries have probably, acreage wise, been more stable (than other berry crops)," Sweeney says, noting the market is doing as well as it was a decade ago.

In 1999, 12 million kilograms of raspberries, 90 per cent of the total grown in British Columbia, came from Abbotsford and directly brought $21.4 million to the economy.

Abbotsford's berry crops now include a booming blueberry industry, predominantly situated on the Matsqui Prairie region of north Abbotsford.

"The big growth rate is in blueberries, which at one time were pretty minor in the Abbotsford area," says Sweeney.

Last year, about 5.5 million kg of blueberries were grown in the Abbotsford area, up from the 4.6 kg grown in 1999 that generated $9.5 million.

While raspberries and blueberries are still doing well, strawberries are not the force they once were, Sweeney says, explaining how the market's changed with competition from Mexico and California.

Cranberries are now making a toehold, with local farms producing a little less then 10 per cent of British Columbia's cranberry crop.

Scattered around the rural areas are farmers who grow saskatoon berries and red currants, gooseberries and blackberries.

The plant agricultural industry in Abbotsford also plays a part in the livestock sector, says Bill Weismiller, manager of the crop industry development program with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Grass and corn produce feed for cattle.

Dairy is still huge in Abbotsford - it pulls in the biggest gate receipts and has a ripple effect through the rest of the economy, says Ron Barker, the Ministry of Agriculture's animal industry branch manager and dairy specialist.

"The dairy industry has been the backbone of a lot of the agriculture services and supply side," Barker says, noting the industry in general has stayed constant - with some growth - in recent years.

Staying with the diversification trend, livestock in Abbotsford has moved away from just dairy and cattle.

Chickens and turkeys are becoming a significant part of the economy.

"This would also apply generally to the poultry sector," Barker says of the ripple effect success has on the economy. "Poultry (numbers) would also be very high."

Abbotsford is home to smaller farms where livestock help supplement the household income, Barker says.

"Many other commodities tend to be important and they're sources of part time income for the small acreage holding," he explains, listing animals such as horses and hogs.

Hogs have been an up-and-down industry in recent years, but they're definitely on the upswing now.

This can partly be attributed to a change in approach, according to Marcel Grashof, a hog farmer on the Sumas Prairie.

"The hog industry is in good shape, because people have diversified," Grashof explains.

"Things have gotten better, prices have gotten better, and 2000 has been an excellent year."

It used to be that everyone raised market hogs, which weigh 90 to 110 kilograms and produce the familiar pork chops, ribs and hams.

Some still do, but others raise the smaller round hogs that weigh in at 35 to 50 kg and are primarily sold to Asian markets. Then there are the wiener hogs which, when they reach sizes of about 20 kg, are sold to other farmers who then raise them as either round or market hogs.

If there's one thing farmers know, it's don't count chickens before they're hatched or, in this case, hogs before they're sold.

But Grashof is optimistic.

"The forecast is steady," he says. "We're not going to make megabucks in 2001, but we're going to make a good living."

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RAY YENKANA - The hard working nice guy
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