Planned changes to farm worker housing in Kelowna put on hold

City council votes to defer rule changes to give more time to negotiate with farmers.

The city’s attempt to regulate housing for temporary foreign farm workers in Kelowna has been deferred.

Council voted to defer after a three-hour public hearing Tuesday night at which many local farmers, including three of the largest cherry growers in the region and the president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, urged council to reconsider a number of amendments to existing rules concerning the temporary housing of temporary foreign farm workers on farm land.

Before the meeting got underway, three letters of opposition were entered. Those letters were from two individuals and the BC Fruit Growers Association. Letters in support of the regulations were from the Agricultural Land Commission, the Urban Development Institute and one individual.

That the public hearing drew a significant crowd wasn’t unexpected. Prior to the public hearing, farmers had expressed frustration that the city failed to properly consult them before putting into place industry altering regulations.

“The BC Cherry Growers Association is 130-years-old and it was not brought to the table for a face-to-face discussion about temporary farm worker housing regulations—that’s an issue that’s very important to the industry,” said Sukhpaul Bal, a local farmer and president of the BC Cherry Growers Association earlier this year.

At the public hearing, Bal said the proposed amendments, which would trigger a public hearing when a request for housing for more then 40 workers was made and consider separate farms owned by one individual as a single unit, were problematic. Forty is the city’s current cap for the number of farm workers that can be housed at any one farm now, as long as the farm is at at least four acres in size. One proposed city amendment would allow more but only after a public hearing and a vote by city council.

Fred Steele, president of the BCFGA said he believed that the city and farmers could craft a better solution by working together.

The BCFGA proposed raising the public hearing threshold to 60 from 40, which is a minimum set by the province. It also wants to see the definition of a farm unit changed so farms are seen as individual units rather then grouped together for the purposes of farm worker housing if owned by one individual. It also wants to see housing allowed to be used for 10 months of the year instead of the proposed eight months in order to cover shoulder seasons.

City staff say 95 per cent of farms, which are employing temporary foreign workers from Mexico and Jamaica, fall below that number and that’s why this regulation will be red-tape reducing. But, as was pointed out, a very small number of farmers, particularly in the case of cherry growers, control the vast majority of farmland in the city.

Bal said it’s a skewed view given the way the industry has evolved and how land has changed hands in recent years. Ultimately, these regulations will penalize larger operations that may need more than the 40 workers by making them go through a lengthy process.

And if they can’t get the workers they need housed and ready for harvest in a timely manner, there’s a potential that crops will be ruined. There is currently a shortage of farm labour and that has prompted the need to turn to foreign worker. More than 2800 came here from Mexico last year and 700 from Jamaica.

“You can’t say a policy catches 95 per cent of the industry without revealing that the smaller percentage of farmers does the greatest amount of farming,” Bal had said, explaining 40 farm-worker allotment is per farm owner, not per land parcel.

“There are five to six of us farming the greatest amount of land and there’s a trend of consolidation. Young people aren’t coming to the industry, so larger growers are buying or leasing middle sized acreages—they already have 150 acres so having another 50 is not a big deal.”

But several councillors and Mayor Colin Basran were adamant that no matter what is worked out, there must still be public hearings when housing for large numbers of farm workers is sought to give the general public, especially neighbours, an opportunity to comment directly to council.

The deferral means the bylaw proposing the amendments will remain at first reading, giving the city and farmers the opportunity to negotiate further to refine the amendments. The move was welcomed by both Steele and Bal.