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Steele wins BC Fruit Growers' Association lead role

Fred Steele speaks with reporters after seizing control of the BC Fruit Growers
Fred Steele speaks with reporters after seizing control of the BC Fruit Growers' Association, winning the annual elections to become president Saturday afternoon by beating incumbent Jeet Dukhia.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

The man who assumed control of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association after Kelowna's Kirpal Boparai resigned the presidency amid unprecedented controversy lost his position to Fred Steele this weekend.

Vernon cherry orchardist Jeet Dukhia stepped in as interim president when Boparai broke with the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative and resigned from the BCFGA's leadership.

In speaking at the BCFGA's annual meeting this weekend, Dukhia presented himself as a leader who worked cooperatively with government throughout his year as president, but a coalition of farmers took umbrage with his approach, managing to assemble more votes for Steele.

"People wanted to have more rejuvenation in the association," said Steele, a Glenmore apple grower who lost to Dukhia the previous year.

The candidates appeared to agree on the substantive issues, but Steele was seen as someone who could polish the industry's image and put the focus back on promoting B.C. fruit.

Public perception of orchardists as an embattled group has cost growers access to government help and consumers' trust, in his view. As he spent three decades in radio broadcasting, and has a solid understanding of public relations, he is hoping he can restore the kind of calm, persistent voice the industry had with leaders like Joe Sardinha, who passed away unexpectedly this year.

"I think we have to have an articulate approach. We have to be clear and concise about what our goals are, written down, and what our priorities are, and those priorities should be determined by the membership," said Steele, noting he's looking to write a strategic plan immediately.

While Boparai's position attracted attention from the press, he was not the lone dissident to reject the packinghouse. Several orchardists failed to return to the Okanagan Tree Fruits Cooperative at the beginning of 2013 and a regular rotation of radio advertisements began enticing growers to sell south of the border.

The turmoil prompted a restructuring. The Kelowna packing facility closed in 2013, workers were laid off in the fall and Okanagan Tree Fruits Cooperative rebranded as BC Tree Fruits Cooperative.

Unfortunately, the packinghouse debacle was hardly the only blemish in a year marked by extreme weather and stormy politics.

Hail storms in the Central and North Okanagan, and severe frost in the South, resulted in $15 to $18 million in losses for growers. The BCFGA's attempt to access the federal disaster relief failed, thus crop insurance yielded a lot of discussion during the AGM.

Dukhia reported securing a verbal commitment from Premier Christy Clark to get the subsidy back on the books, but a funding  announcement never materialized.

Orchardists estimate five to ten per cent of their property must be replanted each year to replace trees with a production shelf life, deal with rot and keep pace with market demand for new varietals. The subsidy only covers a small portion of farmer's total cost, but was valued.

"I really do hope the government is going to come through with this. It's extremely important for the health of the industry," said Penny Gambell, a Lake Country orchardist and one-time BCFGA president.

The government provided $2 million in 2011 for replant, but the program was fully subscribed almost immediately, though it had been consistently funded for several decades prior.

"It was one of the best programs the government has ever come up with and it is a trade-acceptable program," Gambell said.

The AGM was also used to promote the final days of a three-month long vote to poll support for an Apple Research and Promotion Agency in B.C.

The agency would be part of a national effort to establish grower-funded research and marketing agencies which could organize to secure access to tariffs applied to fruit at the border—a move recently accomplished by the cattle industry for levies on beef imports.

ARPA would require an eight-cent per-box levy from B.C. orchardists, however, and this didn't sit well with some at the meeting who questioned whether another marketing body was worth it.

"I'm not so sure general promotion is going to get you the best bang for your buck, " said Sam Dimaria, a Kelowna-base apple orchardist. "There are dynamics that are happening across the country that, to my mind, make some of this redundant. This buy local trend is very real."

Steele said he sees it as very short-sighted to view the agency simply as a cost, noting he heartily supports the work Dukhia has done to get the ball rolling.

During his final speech before the election was called Dukhia opted to do half of his presentation in Punjabi and was heckled by a member at the back of the room who shouted: "Speak English."

The moment drew a gasp from those gathered and BCFGA general manager Glen Lucas immediately admonished the member.

Other issues raised included:

  • lobbying for federal subsidies to build permanent washroom facilities so workers hands are clean, a food safety measure
  • publicly distancing the orchard industry from the Arctic Apple, a genetically modified varietal developed at Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., because of the potential image problems it poses (an anti-GMO protest with 60 people was held outside the meeting Saturday)
  • continuing political pressure to see orchardists' water needs considered in the Columbia River Treaty negotiations
  • a desire to see deer fencing subsidized and a deer cull considered by the provincial environment ministry
  • the status and implications of the on-going Agricultural Land Reserve review

 

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