The apple industry is in dire straights, local orchardists told NDP leadership candidate Mike Farnworth at a panel discussion that found new farming technology advocates seated before a room full of angry orchardists.
The meeting was intended to give the MLA a taste of the issues young farmers—primarily those working small and urban plots—face in growing the new sector of agriculture.
But it didn’t take long for the audience, a mix of orchardists and stalwart NDP members, to give Farnworth a piece of their mind.
“This industry is beyond the septic tank,” shouted one angry apple grower who declined to give his name.
He told the politician he is $58,000 in the red, a sum he estimates would take three years to recoup, and that his son is abandoning the farm to work in Alberta because he sees no future in apples. The orchardist could not understand why the NDP has done so little to help farmers and suggested the party needs to bring Farm Income Assistance back to subsidize the farmer during years when costs are not covered.
It is the least he believes the party could do to repay those who had their land ownership rights severely curtailed when the NDP instituted the Agricultural Land Reserve in 1971.
The president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, Joe Sardina, told Farnworth the orchard industry pumps $200 million into this area annually and yet, from what he sees, the farmers’ plight is falling on deaf ears.
“It’s shameful that this province has the lowest per capita spending on agriculture in terms of GDP. Absolutely shameful,” he said.
Sardina pointed to the ALR as well, saying he felt it was good policy to protect the farm, but the province has forgotten to protect farmers.
An additional $118 million in annual spending is needed just to meet provincial spending averages across Canada, he said, adding if the government were to stop pouring money into provincial sports teams and putting roofs on stadiums, farmers might be able to earn a living.
For his part, Farnworth appeared to listen.
“We look at those mountains. We look at the minerals and we don’t think we can grow anything,” the MLA said, admitting he’s targeting agriculture in his platform because he doesn’t think the party has put enough emphasis on the sector.
After the meeting, Farnworth said what he took from the comments is that marketing, like the Buy B.C. campaign scrapped by the Liberal Party when it came to power, is important to farmers, as is spending to support farmers via farm insurance-type programs.
But he also acknowledge the largely young, small-scale urban farmers whose panel was intended to dominate the evening.
“We need to ensure we have supports in place for the next generation of farmers in this province and we need to recognize that agriculture is changing,” he said. “Small-scale urban agriculture is becoming increasingly popular, (as is) medium agriculture and new crops.”
Among the young farmers to speak was Jordan Marr. He told the MLA he consciously chose to be a farmer because he believes feeding people is an important profession. But he said the traditional model for farming requires so much upfront capital to purchase land, it’s almost impossible for him to even consider. Instead, he’s earning his living on rented land with no certainty about how long he can sustain it.
“Pedal-power” urban farmer Curtis Stone said he needs government to look at the existing regulations that prevent the landowners he borrows space to farm on from receiving tax breaks for their generosity.
Unlike the farmers in the ALR who receive considerable breaks on their property taxes, his landowners still give their space to grow a healthy crop of food for their neighbours but receive no rewards for doing so.
Both Marr and Stone said the deck is essentially stacked against them when it comes to ALR regulations, which often protect farmers who do not want to farm the land, but know how to work the system, over people who are generating significant income growing urban crops.