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Minister’s address fails to impress fruit growers

Osoyoos fruit grower Ranbir Kambo listens closely, along with other delegates to the B.C. Fruit Growers annual convention, to an address by B.C. Agriculture Minister Ben Stewart. Later, Kambo questioned the minister on the lack of government support for the industry. - Steve Kidd/Western News
Osoyoos fruit grower Ranbir Kambo listens closely, along with other delegates to the B.C. Fruit Growers annual convention, to an address by B.C. Agriculture Minister Ben Stewart. Later, Kambo questioned the minister on the lack of government support for the industry.
— image credit: Steve Kidd/Western News

Headed into their annual meeting, B.C. fruit growers put replanting, new insect pests, crop and production insurance high on the list of areas where government support is needed as they deal with back to back years of below-cost return on their crops.

Members of the BCFGA hoped they would hear some good news about these and other topics at the Friday address from B.C. Minister of Agriculture Ben Stewart.

But Stewart’s big announcement didn’t dedicate any new provincial money to the fruit industry, or directly address the growers’ concerns. Instead, the $5 million Tree Fruit Market and Infrastructure Innovation Initiative is a rededication of funds announced last July, made up of $3 million from the federal AgriFlexibility Fund and $2 million from the province.

“He didn’t have anything new to say,” said Alanna Claridge, an orchardist whose family has been in the industry since the 1930s. She notes that farmers are struggling — with apple prices predicted to be in the 16 cent range this year — and that it will continue until the province starts to turn in a more positive direction.

“You just hear the same old thing from them all the time,” she said, noting that many apple growers are financially strapped — especially a lot of the newer growers in the valley. It will continue to be tough, she said, until the prices for apples and other fruits get better.

“They’ve put a lot of money out there and a lot are having a hard time,” said Claridge. “Even if they are just leasing they have put money into new plants, fencing, irrigation — you’re talking about a lot of money per acre.”

Stewart stressed the need for innovation in the fruit industry, saying the industry needs to examine whether it operates the best and most competitive type of operation.

“I’m not afraid to say it’s time we took a really hard look at this industry, we need to dig deep and see what we could do better,” he said. “Let’s analyze and see where our current funding is being used, and let’s ensure it is getting the industry the higher rates we know you all need.

“The government wants to work with you, but we need to be more effective and we also need to be competitive … where we need to make improvements.”

“It’s disconcerting to hear him say that producers need to do more for themselves and rely less on the government,” said BCFGA president Joe Sardinha, who was re-elected to his position at the AGM. He is concerned the province is saying do more with less when B.C.’s investment in agriculture lags behind the other provinces.

“We don’t want to be farming the government,” said Sardinha, adding that it is wrong to think of replant funding and other support programs as subsidizing the industry, but as incentive for farmers to innovate and keep up with current practices.

“We need the government to put their fair share into agriculture,” he said, noting that the province has not lived up to commitments made when the Agricultural Land Reserve was introduced in the 1970s.

Statistics presented at the AGM shows that B.C. reinvests around five per cent of the province’s agricultural GDP into the sector. That’s the lowest of any province in Canada, comparing poorly to Quebec, which reinvested about 30 per cent in 2008-09 or even the next lowest, New Brunswick, sitting at about nine per cent for the same period.

“We should not be the lowest province in Canada. We have a lot of opportunity in this province for agriculture, but it will not continue without adequate support,” said North Okanagan grower Penny Gambell, herself a former BCFGA president.

Farmers are caretakers of the land, according to Sardinha, preserving valuable agricultural land for the future. Yet, he said, producers have been “subsidizing” consumers for years, with food prices that are lower than any other industrialized country.

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