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Growers say prices reach bottom of the barrel

Fears that three straight years of low apple prices has the Okanagan fruit industry on the brink of collapse prompted officials to call an emergency meeting earlier this week to discuss the outlook for the industry.
President Joe Sardinha speaks at the recent B.C. Fruit Growers convention in Penticton.

Fears that three straight years of low apple prices has the Okanagan fruit industry on the brink of collapse prompted officials to call an emergency meeting earlier this week to discuss the outlook for the industry.

“It seems to have no end,” said Joe Sardinha, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, questioning how growers are going to keep going after three straight years of declining apple prices.

“We’re looking at serious instability this year in the industry. There is a $200 million economic value here that is at risk.”

Lack of support from the province was one of the key factors discussed when BCFGA directors met with their counterparts from the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative at an emergency meeting on Monday.

According to a joint press release, the low returns are caused primarily by a large crop size in Washington state, increasing bargaining power of retailers as further consolidation of food stores occurs, the strong Canadian dollar, a lack of competitive strategy and agricultural food policy from the federal and provincial governments, and the failure of governmental agricultural programs to protect B.C. apple growers from an unfairly subsidized competition.

“The government continues to hide behind risk management programs. Agristability is a dismal failure,” said Sardinha, referring to a joint federal/provincial program intended to help protect farmers against losses due to market conditions, production loss or increased costs of production.

“Some growers are still waiting for cheques for 2009,” said Sardinha, adding that the program was never designed to cope with a situation as serious as the one currently facing fruit growers. “This Agristability program was just not designed for that and it is going to be woefully inadequate, we are already seeing that.”

The two boards identified several short-term projects, including an expansion of the School Fruit and Vegetable Nutrition Program; seeking fair trade, and local procurement policies from Hotel-Restaurant-Institutional (HRI) clients. The growers on the Boards resolved to create opportunities and to work with the HRI sector to allow consumers to choose B.C. apples at institutions and restaurants. 

Several other strategies, in addition to the recently completed amalgamation of the four co-operatives into the OTFC, were discussed.

“Growers, myself included, are naturally upset that the work they love and the investment of their time and effort are not being rewarded in the marketplace. We are looking at all options and appreciate the support of the BCFGA in our efforts,” said Jim Elliot, president of OTFC.

Sardinha also rails against the provincial government’s unwillingness to enforce the purchase of local fruits for its own operations, like B.C. Ferries.

“How can we not find a B.C. apple on a B.C. ferry?” he asked, noting that the province subsidizes the ferry corporation to the tune of $150 million yearly.

The BCFGA, Sardinha said, has long advocated for an institutional procurement program, which would ensure that B.C. Ferries, hospitals, educational institutions and other branches of the provincial government purchased from local growers and suppliers first.

“We get the same old excuses; it violates NAFTA, it violates trade rules. In the U.S. this is done all the time and if Canada wants to use that excuse, then our Canadian government needs to challenge the U.S. on their programs,” said Sardinha. “I’m really getting fed up with those excuses.”

More support from the provincial government is unlikely in light of comments made by Agriculture Minister Ben Stewart when he spoke at the recent BCFGA annual general meeting, telling the delegates that fruit producers needed to do more for themselves and rely less on the government.

“The Buy B.C. program exists on a shelf right now because the government of the last 10 years hasn’t put a dime into the program. We don’t have the luxury in this industry of protection … The minister does operate (a business) in the wine industry, where they do have protection, the taxation that is placed on imported wines,” said Sardinha.

“How much less can we rely on government when the budget is so minimal and we lag behind all other provinces? If we are going to rely less on government, then they might as well fold up the tent and not have a minister of agriculture.”