The importance of agriculture to the Okanagan

UBCO economics professor says role of farmland is about more than just growing vegetables or fruit.

  • Sun Apr 24th, 2016 10:00am
  • News

UBC Okanagan professor John Janmaat.

By John Janmaat/ Contributor

To me, agriculture, and in particular fresh, juicy apricots and peaches define the Okanagan.

Before buying a place and planting some of my own trees, I would keep visiting the BC Tree Fruits store in anticipation of the first apricots, buying a box as soon as I could, and polishing it off within a week, largely on my own, before going back for the next one.

Once the peaches arrived, same story. These fruits are what make my summer.  To me, this place would truly lack something special if that local season of soft fruits wasn’t part of our year.

The City of Kelowna is in the process of updating its agricultural plan. I think that this is an important opportunity for us to define the role that agriculture has in our community.  There will be opportunities for public participation, and I hope that the citizens of our city choose to participate.  In deciding what the role of agriculture is in our community, I think we need to face some important facts.

Fact #1: Agriculture is only a small part of the Kelowna economy.

Agriculture was a key industry in the settlement history of the Okanagan Valley and in particular the city of Kelowna.  However, the city has grown, and other industries have taken over.  As reported by Statistics Canada, the share of the Kelowna population directly employed in agriculture is under 2%.

The share of businesses involved in agriculture is less than 3.5%, and many of those are businesses that have no employees.  Even if we are generous and say that each job in agriculture supports two jobs elsewhere in the economy, we are still talking less than 6% of jobs.  Within Kelowna, agriculture is a small industry.

Fact #2: We don’t need local agriculture to feed ourselves.  We do need agriculture to feed ourselves.  Farmers feed the world.

However, that doesn’t mean the farms need to be nearby, such as within the urban boundaries of Kelowna.  Over the long term, food prices have been falling, even as global populations have been increasing.  Yield per acre and yield per person have been increasing everywhere in the world.

Malthus’ predictions that the ability to produce food will be what eventually limits population growth – famine if pestilence and disease are insufficient – seems so far to have been kept at bay.  Loosing the food production that occurs in Kelowna would have little discernible impact on food prices or food availability in the city.

Fact #3: Local agriculture has little relationship to food security.  Food security is a term people like to throw around when talking about local agriculture.

If we are talking about protecting our ability to produce food in the face of the risk of other suppliers not being available – drought in California being the recent example – then local food production contributes very little.  This kind of food security is best addressed by ensuring that we have strong trade agreements that allow local food retailers access to multiple sources.

If food security is about ensuring those on low income can acquire the food they need, then giving food to the needy would have to be the priority of local food producers.  It isn’t. There are gleaners, and there are donations, but these are what happens when the farmer is unable to sell the crop.  Local farmers are not growing crops to give them away.  This kind of food security is best addressed by helping those on low income to increase their income.

Fact #4: Buying local is not better for the economy.  What is good for the economy is producing the goods and services we consume at the lowest possible cost – which includes environmental costs.  If agriculture is the most profitable use of local land, then we wouldn’t need the ALR, and we wouldn’t be perpetually worried about the loss of local farms and farmland.  This ties to helping the poor.  If one buys expensive produce from a local producer rather than lower cost produce at a big box store, then there is less money available to donate to helping the poor.

Fact #5: Buying local is not better for the environment.  What is good for the environment is having the smallest total environmental impact from the goods we consume.

This Freakonomics blog lays out nicely some of the issues.  First, transportation is only a small part of the environmental impact of the food we consume. That means we have to compare the rest of the environmental impacts.

If growing food locally requires more land, or more irrigation, or more fertilizer, or more pesticides, per kilo of product than what is needed to produce it elsewhere, then growing local may actually be worse for the environment than bringing in food products from those places that are best at producing them.

These are some pretty darn depressing facts for anyone who wants to have agriculture as part of our community.  The upshot of these facts is that on the basis of economics or the environment, local food cannot be easily defended.

If local food production and local agriculture is to be part of our communities, it has to be so for reasons that go beyond the simple economics of jobs and farm profits and the simple environmental arguments that local is automatically better for the environment.  We need to think far more broadly about the part agriculture plays in our communities.

So, beyond food, what does agriculture provide in Kelowna?

Landscape: Orchards, vinyards, market gardens, and pastures with grazing animals are important parts of the visual landscape we enjoy here in Kelowna.  Look at real estate agent websites, and it isn’t uncommon for that visual landscape to be something they ‘sell’.

Open Space: Agricultural lands are not developed lands.  Being able to escape from the bustle of the city to nearby spaces is valuable to many people.

Culture and History: While agriculture may presently represent a small part of the Okanagan economy, it was instrumental to the settlement of the Okangan by immigrants who arrived during the last couple of centuries.  Maintaining a working landscape provides a connection with that history and our cultural heritage.  A related issue is the importance of protecting lands that provide traditional indigenous foods, but that is a discussion for another day.

Habitats and Environmental Services: Agricultural landscapes can be important habitats for natural species.  They may need to be managed with these services in mind. However, if lost, so is this option.

Connection with the Seasons: When agriculture is part of our landscape, we are exposed to the natural cycles that farmers live with. Seeing spring blossoms, summer irrigation, fall harvest, and winter pruning provides us with a deeper connection with the place in which we live.  This is particularly true when we as a community make a concerted effort to integrate these seasons into the events and activities hosted as a community.

Farming ‘vicariously’: Many urban residents long to be involved with food production. Some are fortunate enough to own property and have the time to garden.  Many others are not so lucky.  However, farmers markets and other opportunities to interact with local agricultural producers provides urban residents an opportunity to be more connected to where their food comes from.

Building Community: I recently attended an event organized by the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council.  A unifying theme among the presenters was that being involved with food production built connections between people, people who may never have interacted around any other issue.  Food is one of the few topics which anyone, irrespective of education, affluence, race, etc. can share about.

Recreational Activities: Wine tourism, agri-tourism, equestrian activities, etc. all take place on agricultural land, and activities like cycling and walking are often enjoyed in agricultural areas.

On a quarter section many kilometers from the nearest residence, these factors are likely not that important.  In the rural-urban fringe they can be large.

The agricultural land in Kelowna is land in the rural-urban fringe, and these non-food services that agriculture provides are important here.

Some experts have taken to speaking about the ‘multifunctionality‘ of agriculture, to clearly acknowledge that agriculture provides much more than just food and fiber commodities. Some European nations recognize this multifunctionality explicitly and make it part of their policy goals (e.g. Switzerland).

The present agricultural plan does mention a number of these non-food services. However, it does not explicitly mention multifunctionality, nor does it make any effort to assess how important or valuable these non-food services are.

A substantial thrust of the document is towards supporting agriculture as an industry, with some management necessary to deal with some of the negative challenges, such as wetland loss, that we seek to reduce. Can we clearly recognize the multifunctionality of agriculture, and take that multifunctionality into account when making decisions about land use conversion? Can we develop policies that identify and support those non-food services that local agriculture provides?

If you care about these issues, be sure to pay attention for the opportunities to make your voice heard.

John Janmaat is an economics professor with the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at UBC Okanagan.