Councillors say fruit farmers deserve help

Kelowna city councillors spoke out on behalf of agriculture this week, as they signed off on a resolution that could eventually allow them to lobby the province for more funding for farmers. 

“If you look across the country, the government hasn’t supported agriculture as part of our economy. Before the Olympics, the province doubled the budget for tourism, but agriculture has been stymied for years,” said Coun. Robert Hobson following the reading of a resolution being sent to the Southern Interior Local Government Association. 

If it’s approved at the association-level, it will be forwarded to the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual conference, where local-level politicians lobby to impact provincial legislation, and in this case ask the province to “increase financial support of agriculture consistent with the national average.”

It’s the type of support, explained Hobson, that should eventually benefit everyone.

“It’s an investment in a renewable resource like forestry,” he said. “(The Ministry of Energy) got a boost a couple years ago, and now it’s got lots of money, maybe funds can come from them.”

Couns. Charlie Hodge and Graeme James also threw their support behind the industry also, referring to it as the back-bone of the economy.

“Funding is ridiculously low,” said Hodge. “This is the future, it’s where food comes from and it’s what made this province what it is.”

In recent years, provincial agriculture budgets have dwindled by $2.5 million in expenditures, which is a fact that doesn’t indicate further investment. 

But Joe Sardinha, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, said council’s support is much appreciated, as his peers are facing dire circumstances.  

“It’s a disaster out there —this is the third year of poor returns,” he said, explaining that’s left more farmers making the decision to shut down portions of their orchard to reduce costs. 

As is, the expectation is that orchardists will bring in 12.5 cents a pound, for apples—a half-cent rise from last year’s returns —and further financial failures will only make things worse.

“The other thing that’s going to have an impact on production and fruit is growers ability to support financing and credit for the coming year’s crop,” he said. 

“Growers by and large did a good job of finding credit in years past, but when you have two years in a row of similar concerns, it may be a different situation altogether.”

Cuts to supplies, like fertilizers, or services, such as pruning crews, are the first to go, but the worst is the fact Sardinha believes many will cut their safeguards.

“I don’t know if they’ll have the money to go out an get hail insurance,” he said. “It’s that tight out there.”

Looking at ways to regulate the market may be the best bet to ensuring agriculture has a future, he explained, noting that despite its weakened standing, agriculture is one of the financial backbones of the Okanagan. 

“We generate $200 million of economic activity in a year, and you can’t replace that overnight,” he said.

Coun. Andre Blanleil pointed out that while he’s not against the idea of further industry support, it’s important to remember that funding isn’t limitless.

“Where is this money coming from?” he said. “Do we ask them to cut other things, or raise taxes?…I realize these are great motherhood issues, but at the end of the day, who is going to pay the bill?”