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Battle shaping up for fruit growers' president

With Monday’s resignation of the embattled B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association president, both the vice-president and a former vice-president are locked in battle to replace him at January’s convention.

With Kelowna grower Kirpal Boparai’s resignation, vice-president Jeet Dukhia of Vernon has taken over the helm of the BCFGA until the Jan. 19 annual general meeting, when elections are held for the board of directors.

And, at four regional council meetings held up and down the valley last month, both he and former vice-president Fred Steele of Kelowna were nominated for the top spot for 2013.

Dukhia was also nominated for vice-president, along with Joe Sardinha of Summerland, who did not run for re-election last year, after seven years as president of the BCFGA.

Neither Steele nor Dukhia believe that cultural issues are at the root of the past year’s controversy in the tree fruit industry, although Dukhia admits there have been some misunderstandings which could have come about because of that.

But, he says there has been a succession of growers of different enthnicities who have represented the industry over the years.

“A grower is a grower. We’re all hard workers and we can’t let anything get in the way of our working together,” he said.

“The past is past. I want good relations now with the executive of the BCFGA and the board of the co-op.

“I’d like to heal the wounds and I’ll talk to anyone with a problem,” he added.

He admitted he had heard some growers who have hard feelings about the last BCFGA election, but he said you can’t stop delegates from getting their supporters out to vote.

Steele said he doesn’t really think cultural differences are the reason for this year’s controversy.

He’s relieved but says there’s no joy in Boparai’s resignation. “The reputation of the industry has suffered,” he commented.

Boparai was voted out of the industry’s major co-operative packinghouse in the summer for shipping his fruit to an independent, contrary to the contract he’d signed with the co-op.

At the annual general meeting of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative in October, members passed a resolution calling for the BCFGA board to remove Boparai from his position as president. No action was taken.

Steele said now he would like to use his experience in politics, and on the BCFGA board, to bring everyone together, set a new course and rebuild.

“We need to make sure our voice is heard; that the membership is well-served and informed; and we need to involve ourselves in programs that will benefit us, such as the Columbia River Treaty discussions,” he said.

Now that he is serving as president of the organization, Dukhia said he too would like to take a different approach.

He’s a strong supporter of the packinghouse co-op and said after 35 years as a member, he wants to see the BCFGA work closely with it.

Regarding the $2 million, three-year replant program announced this spring by the province, Dukhia said it needs to be longer: “I can’t even get any trees. There are none available, so we need to be able to plan ahead,” he said.

Changes are also needed to the program so growers don’t have to replant to the same fruit he said.

Dukhia said he has enjoyed his first year on the BCFGA board, during which he has also served as a director of the Canadian Horticulture Council and on its research and development committee.

jsteeves@kelownacapnews.com

 

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