Richmond farmer opens B&B to subsidize blueberry losses

Jian He's land value has almost doubled in the past three years while profit from growing blueberries is next to nothing

A B&B in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in Richmond has reignited the debate around the use of ALR, but the farm owner said the B&B is legal and allows him to subsidize the low profits in the blueberry industry.  

Activist group Richmond FarmWatch posted one of Happy Farm B&B’s ads on  social media last month and commented “We need help.”

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The ad states: “Live in a luxurious manor villa, enjoy the idyllic scenery of the city… this large blueberry farm allows you to enjoy the fun of picking.”

Farm owner Jian He told the Richmond News that the three rooms, all of which have farm views, in his 12-bedroom house have been granted permits by the city. But he would like to rent out almost all of the rooms.

“It helps me to earn some income off-season and provides accommodation for those who need it. Otherwise the rooms would sit empty. I think it’s a good business model,” said He.

He bought this farm along No. 6 Road for just under $4 million in 2015, after retiring from his cabinet-making business in Richmond. It includes a five-acre blueberry field and a 9,000 square-foot house.

He bought this farm along No. 6 Road for just under $4 million in 2015, It includes a five-acre blueberry field and a 9,000 square-foot house. Photo by Daisy Xiong/Richmond News

“The cupboard business requires a lot of energy and I was getting old. I thought farming was something I would enjoy doing, it keeps me busy, and it’s a good investment,” said He.

Today, his land’s value has almost doubled, but profit from the blueberry farm is next to nothing, He said.

“I have a lot of blueberries, but I can’t find workers to pick them. That’s the problem.”

In the harvest season, all the blueberry farms need workers, creating a labour shortage.

“Picking blueberries requires skills and endurance, not everyone can do it. You can pick for one or two hours, but it will be very boring after that and can drive you crazy,” said He.

“When I happened to find a worker, I would get up at 5 a.m. to go to his home to pick him up.”

Three rooms in He's 12-bedroom house are rented out as B&B (with the city's permits), from which He makes more profit than from his blueberry farm. Photo by Daisy Xiong/Richmond News

Also, due to fierce competition, farmers have to keep their prices low, which makes it even less cost-effective to hire workers, said He, who sells his organic blueberries at the same price as regular ones.

“You have to calculate if it’s worth paying someone to pick the blueberries and sell them for $2 a pound, or whether it costs less to let them go wasted.”

He told the News that he worked up to 12 hours a day during the harvest season and ran a U-pick in the summer. But still, 80 per cent of the blueberries rotted or fed the birds.

“To be honest, I earn more from the B&B than from selling the blueberries. But who wants to turn the blueberries into waste instead of making money out of it if the market allows?”

He has also rejected the suggestion of leasing his land out to somebody else to farm.

“They offer $4,000 for a year. I make more than that now by just selling one fifth of the blueberries I picked. It doesn’t make economic sense to me.”

He is now raising chickens, developing an orchard and making jams and wines with the blueberries he didn’t sell, in the hope of making more profit from his farm. Photo by Daisy Xiong/Richmond News

He said, “if the government wants to encourage people to grow on the land, they need to help make it profitable, then everyone would love to do it.

“For example, they can bring in foreign workers to solve the labour shortage problem or have trade deals with other countries like China where blueberries are much more expensive. That could bring up the price.

“Or they can develop farm tourism. Here is too close to the Richmond downtown – only 10 minutes drive away. Honestly, it’s not very realistic to expect it to be a pure farming area.”

Now, He is experimenting with more ways of making profits from his farm. He has raised 16 chickens, and just bought a new tractor to develop the land near his house into an orchard. He is also making jams and wines with the blueberries he didn’t sell.

As for the controversy over mansions on farmland, He said: “I can’t speak for everybody, but all my money is legal. The previous farm owner retired and had no kids interested in farming. I took it over, investing in it and I’m working hard on it. What’s wrong with me enjoying a big house?

“Some people only see me saving a couple of thousand dollars on my property tax, but they don’t see me pruning and picking blueberries for hours and hours in the sun.

“And who is paying for that?”

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