Mark Murray of Port Alberni gazes over Cox Lake, a small but nourishing body of water fronting farmland on Franklin River Road, and talks about the history of the property that has been in his family since well before he was born.
Now 68, Murray says he has lived here all his life. “It’s my parent’s original property. I’ve lived here since day one.”
The land encompasses more than three acres, with a couple of houses and 3,000 blueberry bushes that comprise Cox Lake Blueberry Farm. Murray at one time owned a Cessna 172 aircraft on floats that he landed on the lake when its borders were larger.
Murray and his wife Jeannie are back working their farm after 17 years away. They have taken over the business from Nash and Seva Dhaliwal, who leased the farm from the Murrays and operated it on their behalf.
Mark Murray planted the blueberry fields 30 years ago. A logger at the time, he responded to criticism from people that the forestry industry was taking from the land by planting three acres of blueberry bushes and getting into farming as a side business. It took three years of cultivation and patience before the bushes began producing berries: now they produce a steady 16,000 kilograms (35,000 pounds) of berries annually—and probably another 7,000 kg (15,000 pounds) that birds, deer and rabbits consume.
“Back then it was really tough to sell blueberries, period. Nowadays, anybody that has diabetes…or is fighting cancer, it’s healthy for them because of the antioxidants,” says Murray.
“They’re a good health food. The new world now, people are starting to get back into farming in your backyard or whatever.”
Walking down the well-worn path beside his blueberry bushes, Murray talks about the varieties he planted, and which one he prefers. A portion of the bushes are called blue crop, and they provide commercial businesses like Naesgaard’s Farm Market, Quality Foods and the weekend farmers’ markets with plump blueberries. The U-pick portion is the Northland variety, which produces smaller, but in Murray’s opinion, sweeter berries.
He said having the lake right next to the farm helps keep the area cooler, but the “heat dome” that hit with record high temperatures in June cost him about 10 percent of his berries this year. “They cooked on the vine,” he said.
He says Nash and Seva Dhaliwal did a good job looking after the farm, and it thrived. Nash and Mark worked together as loggers at Sproat Lake Division. Murray went on to work at Franklin River Division, while Nash was forced to retire. He, Seva and their kids had already spent several seasons picking berries, and Murray offered Nash the opportunity to run the farm while he concentrated on forestry.
The original agreement, said Murray, was that Dhaliwal would run the farm until Murray was ready to retire from logging. That time came this year.
Murray is content to be back at the farm, giving the bushes the year-round attention that they need. He ran the farm for the first 13 years, building up a clientele and selling his berries for 40 cents per pound (now they are $3 per pound ready-picked, or $2.60 for u-pick).
Murray continues to give back with his blueberry farm, this time to the community. He has had volunteers with the Port Alberni Shelter Society Farm picking berries, and whatever they harvested they kept to feed people within their system, he said.
He encourages families to come out with their buckets and bags (buckets are also available to borrow) and pick berries for their own tables.
Cox Lake Blueberry Farm is located at 285 Franklin River Road. Take Anderson Avenue toward China Creek, turn left onto Franklin River Road and the farm is approximately two kilometres down the road (look for the sign that says “blueberries”). The farm is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week during the summer, until the growing season is finished.