Farm labour and water are key issues facing Okanagan fruit growers, according to the industry’s new president.
Pinder Dhaliwal was elected to succeed Fred Steele as president of the BC Fruit Growers Association at their annual general meeting in Kelowna on Friday.
Dhaliwal, an Oliver orchardist who won in a race against North Okanagan fruit grower Jeet Dukhia, said he has heard a lot of comments from fruit growers about frustration with the seasonal agriculture worker program.
“That is the biggest issue facing farmers right now. We can’t run our farms if we don’t have labour. We need to get the ball rolling on that real fast,” Dhaliwal said.
At the annual general meeting, many orchardists spoke at the forums about the bureaucratic process delaying confirmation of seasonal foreign workers who they depend on to harvest their crops.
One example was of Services Canada doing an audit in the fall for each participating farm hiring foreign workers during that year, but farmers can’t apply for foreign farm workers the following spring if the audit has not been completed.
Kelowna-Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr, a speaker at the annual general meeting, said he sympathized with local orchardists’ frustrations, saying he would assist individual farmers’ with their foreign farm worker applications if they are being unnecessarily delayed.
Regarding water, Dhaliwal said drought was a critical factor in the poor fruit crop last year.
“We had 99 days last year without water. Those trees need water, and without it there will be no green valley around here,” he noted.
As vice-president of the BCFGA for the past five years, Dhaliwal said he has undergone an extensive apprenticeship at the association’s executive level, valuing what he has learned working with both outgoing president Fred Steele and long-time orchardists across the valley.
“They have guided me and educated me on how to approach things and what we need to do to make certain policies or programs good for the grower community,” he said.
Dhaliwal, 48, grew up in Oliver, where his parents moved to and bought a fruit orchard in 1981. Today, he lives in Oliver where he looks after a 12-acre orchard, part of the family farm’s 30-plus acres, growing cherries, apples, peaches and nectarines.
Dhaliwal has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Simon Fraser University and education degree from Okanagan University College, the predecessor to what is today UBC Okanagan.
“I have put the teaching on the backburner the last couple of years,” he said, acknowledging that his generation of farmers commonly have a post-secondary education.
He said it’s surprising the diversity of people who are drawn to the agriculture industry. “Farming is in our blood. It’s a lifestyle. Our neighbour is an airline pilot and he owns a farm. We had one person who picked cherries for us who used to work for Boeing in the U.S. and there his now picking cherries and owns his own farm.”
Dhaliwal said the message of optimism hasn’t been dampened by a difficult 2017 for Okanagan fruit growers.
“Farming is like that. There are ups and downs. We are in a little bit of a downturn now because the price of apples has dropped quite a bit, but we will work with different levels of government and see how we can solve that problem and find workable solutions or other avenues we can come up with.”
Joining Dhaliwal on the BCFGA executive this year is vice-president Peter Simonsen; Okanagan North directors David Dobernigg, Karmjit Gill and Sukhdev Garaya; and South Okanagan directors Ravinder Bains, Sulchdeep Brar and David Machial.
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