Starting with just 20 acres in early 1990s, the Birak family farms today have become one of the top producers of berries in Canada
By Gurmukh Singh
Sikh farmer Gurpal Birak of Vancouver stands out as an immigrant success story.
In fact, he is one of Canada’s biggest berry farmers. Plus, he is the biggest supplier of farm labour in British Columbia. Plus his family runs an upcoming travel agency in this era of online booking.
Hard work and dedication sum up the success story of this Punjab-born farmer who landed in Canada as an immigrant in 1980.
Last year, his Birak Berry Farms produced five million pounds of ‘top-quality blueberry, blackberry and strawberry’, making him one among the top five or six producers of these crops in Canada.
His Star Labour Supply Ltd has over 300 farm hands on its rolls, making it the biggest supplier of labour in British Columbia.
And within two years, his newly started Birak Travel has become one of the most respected ticketing agencies among the Indo-Canadian community.
In this interview, the soft-spoken Birak recounts his journey from Kaley village near Phagwara in Punjab to Vancouver and how he pursued his Canadian dream.
Q: First things first. Why do you write your surname as Birak, not Birk or Virk?
Actually, we used to write our surname as Birk. But when my elder brother decided to come to Canada in 1973, the travel agent wrote his surname as Birak. My brother didn’t try to change the spellings and the surname stuck.
Later, when our parents and I joined my brother here, we also became Biraks. I guess the white people find it easier to pronounce Birak.
Q: Tell us about roots in India.
Well, we come from a village called Kaley near Phagwara. We were four brothers and two sisters in our family. We had about 10 acres of land. My father was very much involved in the Communist Party of India. He was called Bhag Singh Comrade. He was well respected in the area.
Q: When did your family immigrate to Canada?
My elder brother, who was an engineer, was the first in the family to come to Vancouver in 1973. He was lucky to get a job with BC Hydro. My parents joined him in 1978.
Being very hardworking, my brother also started the side business of supplying labour to farms in 1979. It was called Star Labour Supply Ltd.
After my MA in political science in India, I was thinking of doing law when my brother in Canada asked me to join him. So I left India and joined him in 1980. Since my brother already had his labour supply firm, I started helping him in his business operations. That’s how I started my life in Canada. I was the youngest in the family.
Q: When did your family branch out into farming in Canada?
Our labour supply business picked up rapidly because people, mostly new immigrants seeking employment, and the farms needing labour hands trusted us.
As we were doing very well in labour-supply business, we decided to branch into farming because, after all, agriculture is in our DNA. We started off with 20-odd acres of blueberry farming in the early1990s. Since then, we have grown both our businesses year over year.
Q: You have become one of the biggest producers of berries in Canada in just over two decades. What is the secret of your success?
Well, we have been a joint family and we worked together. This helped. Then we kept adding more acres every year. So today we have about 600 acres.
Last year, we produced over five million pounds of blueberry, blackberry and strawberry. Which makes us one of the top berry producers in this country. We are in the process of leasing more land and we will post even higher output this year.
As you know, berry farming has become a machinery-oriented business, so we use state-of-the-art equipment, including four latest machines for packing berries.
Q: Who are the biggest buyers of your produce?
We supply to three or four big companies in Canada. We also sell to US companies.
We also do a lot of selling ourselves. During the peak harvest season which runs from June to October, we set up our own eight fruit vends outside our farms.
People buy directly from us because they get fresh produce at a cheaper price. For example, we sell a five-pound pack for $10 and a 10-pound pack for $20. It is fresher and cheaper than what you get at stores.
Q: Despite your busy life as a farmer, you have also been involved in the politics of Vancouver’s famous Ross Street Sikh Temple. How do you find time for politics?
It happens when you get involved in group politics and people respect you. I have served as a vice-president of Ross Street Sikh Temple for 11 years – from 1999 to 2011. In fact, I served for four consecutive terms, and it is a record in the history of this historic gurdwara which was established in 1906. But right now, I am not involved in gurdwara politics.
Q: You also run the airline ticketing and travel business under the name of Birak Travel. How does this business mix with your core business of farming and labour supply?
We happened to get into the airline ticketing business by chance when someone in India misused our trust and duped the people we used to refer to him. When his scam to light, we took the help of authorities in India and we were able to recover most of the money. It taught us a big lesson.
That incident prompted my wife Harminder to take up a nine-month course and start her own travel agency.
Because of the trust we enjoy with people, Birak Travel is doing very well.
Q: In this age of online ticketing reservation?
Yes, because people in our Punjabi community trust us…they don’t want hassles of reservation, date change, etc.
When people call airline reservation counters, nobody picks up the phone. But at Birak Travel, people can contact us any time and they find it easier to deal with us.
We will keep growing in all three businesses. My wife used to keep book-keeping before she got busy with the travel agency, but she still helps in book-keeping related to Birak Berry Farms.
My son Gurvinder Singh Birak, who has just joined a law firm after his JD in law from Australia, also helps me in farm operations.
Our daughter Sanjit Kaur is away in Birmingham doing her law. So we all have interchanging roles in our businesses.