Mending fences will be one of the priorities for the coming year, according to the new president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, Jeet Dhukia of Vernon, who was elected on the weekend.
It has been a year of turmoil for the 124-year-old lobby group for B.C.’s orchardists, as it elected its first East Indian president last year, then watched as he took on his co-op packinghouse and was ejected for not living up to his contract, finally resigning from his position as president last month.
Dhukia has committed to reinstating friendly relations with the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative, and says he would even like to work with that organization to support it in applying for funds from senior government so the co-op can update its outdated facilities.
In a report to growers at the convention, co-op general manager Alan Tyabji said it will be amalgamating with B.C. Tree Fruits this year, in order to realize some tax savings as the co-op moves to liquidate some of its unused properties.
“The packinghouse is not in a good position right now to update,” commented Dhukia, so it’s important that the two organizations work together to modernize facilities. “Growers need better returns,” he commented.
Another priority for the new president will be on efforts to quantify the economic cost to the tree fruit industry of the Columbia River Treaty which was signed in 1964 and which comes up for notice of termination or renewal next year.
Dhukia says the water stored as part of the treaty, which is focused on provision of electricity, not irrigation water, has actually permitted the apple industry in Washington State to expand from three times that of B.C., to 40 times that of B.C.
“We are working on establishing what that treaty has cost us,” he said.
Delegates approved a resolution to lobby for a share in any increase in provincial revenue due in a renewed treaty.
Dhukia said another of his top priorities will be convincing the province to expand the replant program, so that instead of two years, growers can plan ahead 10 years; and so that nurseries know ahead of time that growers will be needing trees each spring.
Right now, he said there aren’t any trees available for growers to plant this spring even though a $2 million replant program was announced last year, to begin this year.
“We want a commitment for a long-term program,” said Dhukia.
That was something that agriculture minister Norm Letnick committed to work on for growers when he spoke to them Saturday.
The funds provided by government are just a fraction of what it costs growers to put in each acre of new varieties of tree fruits, but the hope is that they will bring in better returns, so many growers are willing to make the investment.
Lower down the priority list, said Dhukia, but still important is a member vote delegates agreed to hold on forming an Apple Research and Promotion Agency. Already, similar agencies are in place in other apple producing provinces such as Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, and all would then join to form a national council.
A national council could fund a combination of national and regional projects and could impose a levy on apples imported to Canada, which would effectively double the amount of funding available in research and promotion money.
Dhukia said the eastern provinces are waiting for B.C. to approve such an agency as well. Growers will have to be educated about the benefits of the proposal before a vote is held, he said.
He said he is excited to have young people like Bupinder Dhaliwal and Madeleine van Roechoudt on the executive and involved in the industry.
The new executive will hold its first meeting late this week, he said.