Parmjit Bains: UBC Alumni Award of Distinction

Parmjit Bains: UBC Alumni Award of Distinction

Parmjit Bains (left), UBC Alumni Award of Distinction recipient

To build a successful business from the ground up takes fortitude to face challenges and a sharp instinct to see an opportunity on the horizon and act on it – something Parm Bains (BSc Agr 1979) has done for the last 34 years in the Fraser Valley.

To recognize his longstanding success, contributions to the berry industry, and service to UBC, Bains was recognized with a 2023 UBC Alumni Award of Distinction. This is just one of many accolades for Bains.

Bains is President and CEO of Westberry Farms, a fully integrated grower, processor and packer of fresh and frozen berries. The company serves about 50 other growers in the Fraser Valley, and Westberry has grown to 500 hectares of grower-owned family farms. Across the Fraser Valley, there are presently about 20 grower packing facilities that handle the 75 million kilograms of blueberry crops produced each year in the province.

Back in 1989, Bains and his wife Satwinder bought a 16-hectare blueberry farm in Abbotsford. Having worked on his cousin’s vegetable farm in Surrey as a teenager, Bains knew agriculture was in his blood.

“I developed a keen and profound love for the land and farming. This led me to UBC to study agriculture, where I majored in crop protection and horticulture.”

When the North America Free Trade Agreement came into effect in 1994 between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, many multinational packing and processing plants in the Valley closed their doors, finding it difficult to compete with their larger counterparts from the U.S.

However, it was a time when the blueberry industry started taking off and this created an opportunity for grower/packing facilities to fill the vacuum created by the plants that closed down.

Bains and four other growers partnered to start Westberry Farms in 1997 to process and pack locally grown blueberries for the fresh and frozen Canadian market. Over the years, Westberry expanded its market base globally and started distributing to countries such as Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, India, and others. This created additional opportunities for Westberry to expand its base of growers as the industry grew.

In peak season, Westberry Farms receives up to 100,000 kilograms of berries daily for the fresh market and employees have a 24-hour turnaround window in which to sort, package and precool the berries in preparation for shipment. This quick turnaround ensures the berries stay crisp and fresh in transition to their final destination.

“We aim for a two-week shelf life once they arrive in stores. We ship across Canada, as well as across the U.S. to such places as California, Texas, Chicago, and Florida. Also, we ship internationally. Consumers in South Korea and Japan like the B.C. highbush blueberries for their thin skin, size, flavour and crispness.”

His own business aside, Bains is well-known for being a spokesperson and leader in the berry industry, even addressing trade challenges that appear every few years. He represented the local industry on the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, and served as a Chair of their Board of Directors from 2014-2017 – the only non-American to hold this position. He’s been active with the BC Blueberry Council since the 1990s, and is known for being an early adopter of new technology that can support provincial growers.

For his work in the community, Bains has received many awards, including a Doctorate of Letters (Honoris Causa) from the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in 2009. This recognized his support in creating the Centre for India-Canadian Studies at UFV (now known as the South Asian Studies Institute); the Goswami Ganesh Dutta Sanatan Dharma College in Chandigarh, India; and, establishing the BC Regional Innovation Chair in Canada-India Business and Economic Development at UFV, for which he played a lead role in fundraising.

At UBC, he’s been a two-term Chair of the Faculty of Land and Food Systems Faculty Advisory Council, an industry board that provides guidance and insight to the Dean and leadership team. He’s also been a mentor for students, a panellist speaker, and alumni representative throughout the years at several events.

Looking ahead, Bains sees both new opportunities and challenges. He’s optimistic about B.C. developing new value-added products using local blueberries – such as dried berries, new pet food formulas and dairy products – and making further inroads into Asian export markets. Also, what he calls the ‘halo effect’ of the health benefits of blueberries will continue to create strong demand.

Challenges on the horizon include addressing a shortage of labour, for which he is looking into new blueberry varieties that can be mechanically harvested. Also looming are climate issues that are affecting pollination, and the length of the growing season in B.C., especially as competitors in South America benefit from long growing seasons and cheap input costs.