Fruit growers get chance to bend minister’s ear

Agriculture Minister Don McRae is trying to get a handle on issues facing the fruit industry in B.C. by going to the source and holding grassroots conversations with growers.

Agriculture Minister Don McRae is trying to get a handle on issues facing the fruit industry in B.C. by going to the source and holding grassroots conversations with growers.

Tuesday, B.C.’s new agriculture minister was in Osoyoos, holding a small meeting with a group of about 20 area growers, mirroring a similar meeting he had in Kelowna last month. A former teacher, McRae has little experience with the agriculture industry, though growers are happy he decided to come talk to them directly.

“I certainly appreciated the minister giving us the opportunity and that’s something quite new. That’s a bit encouraging,” said Greg Norton, who grows cherries in Oliver.

But, Norton continued, even if the new minister is friendly, more is needed from the government to help the industry through the serious issues facing it.

“He certainly wasn’t there to make any announcements, we already knew that. The challenges, regardless who the minister is, are still the same,” said Norton.

BCFGA president Joe Sardinha wasn’t in attendance at either the Osoyoos or Kelowna meeting. He said the meetings were intended to give growers a chance to connect to the minister directly.

“This way, he connects with more grassroots,” said Sardinha. “From what I gather, the growers are really not saying anything different from what the BCFGA has been telling the minister, that there are some pretty tough financial straits out there right now.”

Norton admits his hopes going into the meeting probably amounted to unfair expectations from someone so new to the job.

“I would like to have met a man that would go to that cabinet table and finance committee and pound on the desk and say, ‘Listen you’ve got to do something here to get agriculture back on track in B.C.’ I certainly didn’t see that,” said Norton. “This minister being so new, he is a long way away from new and creative solutions and that is what we need. We just can’t continue to approach agriculture the same way we have … it’s just not working.”

While government assistance will help growers through the immediate financial crisis facing the industry, Norton said they aren’t looking for cheques from the government as a way of keeping the industry viable.

“On the long term it is the market that has to keep us viable,” he said.

Shoppers are wanting and asking for Canadian products, he continued, but they are still faced with the challenge of competing with subsidized growers in other countries.

“The problem is that the wholesalers are pricing our Canadian products on the lowest possible price, which is more often than not, below our cost of production,” he said. “We just can’t compete with these foreign producers.”

Norton, however, has been impressed with how McRae is handling his new position. He first met the new minister not long after he took over the agriculture portfolio, at a meeting in Abbotsford. Though McRae was very green then, Norton thinks he has gotten a better handle on what is going on in the month since.

“To bring a person in to be minister of agriculture without any agriculture background, well, he is going to be learning for years,” said Norton. “I am encouraged that he is willing to come out and talk to us and he does appear that he wants to learn. And if you are willing to learn, you are going to learn.”

Sardinha said nothing has come forward yet to help fruit growers, who are facing a third year of record low prices, though he is encouraged by a further $3 million investment in the school fruit and vegetables nutrition program.

“We’re working with the minister. We have had support from the NDP as well, from their new leader,” said Sardinha. “Whatever it takes to get something solid for the industry and allow us to move forward, we’ll try our best.”