We had the opportunity to speak with Travis Drew, the President of Valley Select about his recent experience with leading a group of industry experts and professionals at the International Blueberry Organization Summit through a tour of Valley Select Farms, on the many new and exciting innovations he was able to learn and share at the summit, as well as his thoughts on the future of Valley Select and the agriculture industry.
Travis has had a lifetime of experience in the agricultural industry, following in the steps of his father who also worked in the agricultural research field. He completed a degree in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan and from there, moved to B.C. where he focussed more on the production of fruit and vegetables. He joined the team at Valley Select at the beginning of February 2019, and oversees multiple departments including sales, production, food safety, maintenance, logistics and customer service. As a member of the board of directors for the B.C. Blueberry Organization as well as the chair of promotions, he was asked to host the IBO Summit this June. The IBO Summit is held every 18 months, and this is the very first time that Canada, and Vancouver has had the opportunity to host this event.
Q: Can you give me an overview of the tour?
A: The tour was hosted at the Valley Select farms and on-site packing facility. Out of over five hundred conference attendants, about three hundred were present at the tour of over four hundred acres of land and the on-site packing facility. There were industry representatives from over 16 countries who all provided really positive and valuable feedback on our farm and facilities. It was also very encouraging to see how people from all over the world were so impressed with the B.C. blueberry industry.
Q: What was your overall experience and impressions from the summit?
A: The summit was all about coming together and understanding that we as a global community have to collaborate and grow the industry together, rather than competing with each other. This is no longer just a B.C. industry but a global industry, and we all work together to share knowledge that can improve the industry in general. For example, we work together to find new varieties of berries that work well in each climate, find new or untapped markets and increase the public’s awareness of different health benefits and uses of blueberries.
We also learned that while things are different everywhere, we face the same problems. One of the biggest challenges not just in the blueberry industry, but agriculture overall is that the younger generation has a declining interest in working within agriculture and not understanding the diversity in career paths available within the field. It’s not just a guy in overalls standing in a field with a pitchfork, you can work in research, marketing, on the field or off the field. Labour shortage is definitely a big problem right now that everyone is trying to solve.
It was also really valuable to receive feedback from others in the industry and see that Valley Select was a leader within the blueberry industry in terms of its high standards for food safety, growing and packing. Canada has a very good reputation for food safety standards that are recognized internationally and we were good representatives of that high standard.
Q: Any exciting innovations you want to discuss that you learned from the summit?
A: There is lots of research right now going into new varieties of blueberries, such as varieties that can extend the season as well as improving existing varieties on disease and pest resistance, and of course making sure that they’re even more delicious. There is also lots of research going into machine harvesting in order to improve the technology so that it can become even more efficient while handling the berries safely. I believe that the continued growth and survival of our industry is thanks to different technological advances that are adapted to the blueberry industry, addressing challenges such as the high cost of labour, and making essential tasks faster, more efficient and effective.
Q: What was your biggest takeaway from this 3 day summit? Any specific highlights?
A: It was really exciting to receive international feedback and to be able to create lasting relationships with people from all over the world. There was such a positive atmosphere, this real sense that we’re all in this together. Having the tour at the farm and getting so many positive comments was really great for the whole team and inspired everyone to keep moving forward.
I think Valley Select has a really exciting future. After this summit, I truly believe that there is no reason a small company in Canada cannot become a global player in this industry. We’re at the front end of technology and food safety, and in one of the best places in the world to grow blueberries. We are now the largest blueberry supplier for Driscoll’s in North America, and together we built a 30,000 square foot packaging storage house. That’s a great example of the kind of trusting, cooperative partnership that we are trying to build. We both identified our needs are worked together to find a solution that benefits both of us and will continue to help us grow.
Q: Just for fun, could I ask what your favourite way to enjoy blueberries are?
A: I do honestly love them fresh, just on their own. But I do a lot of baking and use them a lot in scones and muffins. My favorite birthday cake growing up was a home-made pound cake with four layers, and in between each layer would be a custard with blueberries.
That being said, I really want to get the message out there that there are more ways to use blueberries than in baking and in smoothies. They’re really versatile – put them on a salad, or in salad dressing, and they go really well with meat dishes as well. Both frozen and fresh, they have so many different uses that I think people don’t realize. One of the panels we had at the summit was on the research into the variety of health benefits that blueberries provide that may not be known to the general public, including helping with weight loss, heart health and diabetes. They’re not just tasty, but they’re a superfood as well. I really want to focus on amplifying that message to the public.