Cherry growers plead that budget cuts be stopped

B.C.’s lucrative cherry industry wouldn’t exist the way it is today without federal research efforts, and the orchard industry relies on the foundation of federal and provincial business risk management programs.

B.C.’s lucrative cherry industry wouldn’t exist the way it is today without federal research efforts, and the orchard industry relies on the foundation of federal and provincial business risk management programs.

Yet, those same programs may be chopped according to Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter, and local orchardists say researchers at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre are already being cut.

Local cherry growers Christine Dendy and David H. Geen, both members of the executive of the Okanagan-Kootenay Cherry Growers’ Association, say they are not happy that several researchers who have retired in recent years have not been replaced.

The issue was brought up again this week with the retirement of cherry breeder Frank Kappel, after 28 years with the federal government, 23 of those at the research centre in Summerland.

The cherry breeding program there was just getting started under David Lane when he took it over in 1994, and today it’s estimated that 80 per cent of the world’s new cherries are Summerland varieties.

Those new varieties included split-resistant and later season varieties that have rejuvenated the industry in the Okanagan, until today it represents a substantial portion of the $900 million in economic activity generated by the entire tree fruit industry.

There won’t be a new cherry breeder hired at the centre, but the apple breeder, Cheryl Hampson, will instead take on the cherry breeding program as well.

Kappel wouldn’t comment on that decision, except to say that because land and labour prices in Canada tend to be higher than other growing areas of the world, consumers need to be prepared to pay for their food if they want a thriving agriculture industry in this country.

B.C. growers have been leaders in intensive production in tree fruits and the industry has been very innovative, with growers in other parts of the world looking to B.C. as where they’d like to be, he commented.

“Our growers are very good stewards of the land. They work hard at it,” he added.

However, growers are concerned that their hard work may not be paid off without continued support from senior governments.

“Our association has the money to spend on research, but teamwork is needed. The plant pathologist and other specialists need to be in the same building so they can work together researching issues,” commented Dendy.

Chemical companies do some research, but public-funded research is important too, because it might not all be in the best interests of a particular company, noted Dendy.

And, there are shipping and packing issues which would not be attractive as research by a chemical company, but which are still invaluable to the industry, she added.

“Growers can’t do it alone,” she commented.

Kelowna-Lake Country MP Ron Cannan said there has been a significant increase in the agricultural research budget, which was $266 million last year, but he admitted there are some concerns that B.C. doesn’t get its fair share.

He said federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz is aware of the issues and interested in working in partnership with the provincial government.