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B.C. fruit and grape growers get $70M to replant damaged crops

Premier David Eby announced the money Wednesday via stream to wine industry conference in Penticton
B.C. fruit and grape growers will receive up to $70 million in provincial money to re-plant crops damaged by January’s cold snap. (Black Press Media file photo)

B.C. fruit and grape growers will receive up to $70 million in provincial money to re-plant crops damaged by January’s cold snap with more climate-change resilient varieties.

Premier David Eby announced the money Wednesday (March 13) via live-stream to attendees of at the BC Wine Industry Insight Conference in Penticton.

The new funding tops off the perennial crop renewal program worth $15 million announced last spring to help more than 200 producers remove diseased and unproductive plants and replace them with higher quality crops. The money is said to help 1,000 revitalize their farms and protect their business.

“I wanted to be here to say we got your back,” he said. “The farmers of British Columbia are so critical to the security of our food. We see the challenges internationally around food security and that’s going to affect us and it has affected us through food prices right here at home. We need to ensure British Columbians have access to good high-quality, food that’s grown here in B.C.”

A severe cold spell in January caused extensive damage to fruit and grape growers in the Okanagan and other regions, damaging large stands of fruit trees and wine grapes. Some farmers impacting by the cold reported losses of 100 per cent.

“Roly [Russell] took me on a Boundary country tour, and I was out in Cawston at Vanessa Vineyard,” Eby said. “You could see the vines from where we were standing were dead and dying from the extreme temperature swings that we’ve seen and that was before the most recent cold snap and I understood in an instant how devastating this has been.”

Peter Simonsen, president, BC Fruit Growers’ Association, welcomed the funding.

“This investment is an essential piece of the puzzle that will help our growers adapt their orchards to plant more efficient and productive orchards that can weather the storms of climate change,” he said.

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The government is also establishing a B.C. wine grape sector task force. BC United had called for such a measure before today’s announcement.

The task force will run for two years and provide practical recommendations to producers and the industry on how to remain profitable and resilient against the backdrop of climatic changes and the complex provincial and federal rules shaping the wine industry. Government is also preparing other measures to enhance wine-related tourism.

Miles Prodan, president and chief executive officer of Wine Growers BC, said his organization is looking forward to working with the ministry to ensure B.C. vineyards come back better than ever. He said today’s announcement confirms government’s commitment to support the resiliency of provincial wine growers.

“The ongoing climate change effects, highlighted by recent freeze events on B.C. farmers is real and directly impacts those individuals and families that make up our industry,” Prodan said.

Eby said that the hope is that the support from the provincial government will allow vineyards to replace their grapes with varietals that are better able to survive extreme temperature swings, as well as respond better to changing consumer tastes. “So we could turn a crisis into an opportunity for the whole province,” Eby said.

BC United’s Ben Stewart, MLA for Kelowna-West, said the amount is an “early indication” that government “understands what catastrophic damage happened” in January. “I have never seen it this bad and I have lived on the farm that I own for almost 60 years,” he said.

Stewart called the amount a “good” start. “They can make certain that they are working toward the idea of replanting, pulling out (damaged crops) and doing what has to be done,” he said.

But Stewart, who has actively shaped the provincial and national wine industry through his founding of Quail’s Gate Winery and as chair of VQA Canada, also warned against high expectations giving the extent of the damage, adding that it may take some time before growers will be able to plant crops that are more climate-resiliant.

“Our family has been doing this for many, many decades and we have worked very hard to find the most climate-adaptable grapes through experimentation,” he said. “If there is other information out there, I am sure that ourselves and the other growers are very interested in that, but I don’t know of other varieties. It’s about planting the right variety in the right location.”

Stewart also praised signals from government that would give B.C. wineries some flexibility down the line.

“They are very committeed to seeing that the industry continues, albeit that this will be a very difficult year for wineries and growers.”