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Photo by Kim Elsasser
Fred Steele, President of the BCFGA
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Photo by Kim Elsasser
BCFGA President Fred Steele and Vice President Bhupinder Dhaliwal
Fred Steele became president of the BCFGA on February 15, 2014. We caught up with him to find out what's been happening since then.
O&V: Can you give us a recap on your first year as BCFGA President?
Steele: Since I was elected people are telling me I now have the power to do things. My response is, yes I do, but I have the wisdom not to do it on my own. The farming community is like a large dysfunctional family, but at the end of the day we are still family. We operate by consensus and we don’t always agree on everything. At the end of the day we have to agree on something and that moves us forward.
Since the elections we’ve started to build some new bridges and explore some new avenues to expand the industry. In the past we’ve gone to talk to the Provincial and Federal Agriculture Minister. Now we are reaching out to the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Industry, and the Ministry of Western Diversification. We are exploring how we fit in to the economics of that picture.
The provincial and federal governments are always talking about jobs, innovation, and export. We want to find out where we fit in to all of that. The BCFGA is the catalyst that brings people together. Once the members decide the direction they want to go, we go and find a way to do it. There isn't just one pot of money in a provincial or federal budget. There are so many different avenues that we can relate back to agriculture. It has expanded our base dramatically.
O&V: Have you developed a strategy for competing with the American markets?
Steele: We know we can’t compete with the Americans, that is lunacy. There is a huge concern because there are too many apples. The Americans have a glut and we are preparing a case to even the playing field. We've talked to a trade lawyer and informed the Canadian horticulture council what we are doing.
Our case says as soon as the Americans dump apples at a cost less than production, we will be filing with a government tribunal. Then the government at the border would add the difference between cost of production and the sales price and bring it up to equal pricing. The second part of that is we would apply for an additional five years of protection. We have entered into discussions with all the partners, which include the BC, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia governments. This is a national problem and we are doing this together.
O&V: What, if anything, has been done to improve access to crop insurance?
Steele: There are areas around crop insurance that we've already worked on. Now you can buy your 50% insurance over the phone with your credit card instead of having to wait for an appointment. That has been a huge benefit for our members.
O&V: What other plans are in motion to help farmers?
Steele: We've changed the way we deal with government and their agencies. Instead of getting into feuds with them, we are now asking what the specific government policy is and where they are going. If we can set our agenda to match their agenda, we become a natural partner.
We sat around complaining for decades, but now the solutions are there and we are pushing down that road.
We’ve also gone back to the drawing board. We have new relationships with the people in the packinghouse and the independents and the Canadian horticulture council. We are also exploring how we fit into complementary industries like the wine industry.
O&V: The Okanagan Tree Fruit Coop is now making cider with culls. How does that affect your members?
Steele: We are currently working with the Okanagan Tree Fruit Coop and other independent groups on a variety of things. For example, we are discussing not being charged for culls through Okanagan Tree Fruits as they can now use our culls for cider. That alone will save the grower about 8.5 cents per pound of culls.
What you’ve got now is a value added product where something is actually going back to farmer. Not being charged for culls is huge, who knows, maybe in the future farmers will actually get paid for culls.
O&V: What other markets are you looking at for BCFGA growers?
Steele: We are looking at South Korea and other parts of Asia right now. For example in seven years there will be no tariffs with South Korea. It also takes five to seven years to get a tree into the ground and have it bear fruit. We are working on a replant program with the Ministry of Agriculture. We’ve been having conversations with the assistant deputy minster, Grant Parnell, and we brought him to the interior so he would have a better understanding of why we need a long-term replant program. I have a considerable respect for Norm Letnick and I believe he will follow through on a long-term replant program.
Another strategy is to see how we can extend the life of our apples here with storage and how we can have apples year round for consumers. We are working on a North/South deal that I call it Kiwi Canuck. The best way for us to compete against the Americans is to look around for a partner; somewhere where our fall is their spring. We send fruit to them, sorted for size and quality. They take that fruit, and have their graders and wholesalers deal with it. What we then do is we bring their fruit up here in our off-season, have it go through our graders and provide volume to the packinghouses. A plant that runs throughout the entire year is more profitable. We can also get fresh fruit year round that makes it easy to compete against millions of boxes of stored fruit from our neighbour to the south.
We can also share technologies with New Zealand. For example: they have large vessels for exporting and importing fruit. We are looking for niche markets around the world and we can piggyback on each other to ensure we can meet the consumption needs.
O&V: What are some of the immediate concerns for the tree fruit industry?
Steele: Our members are concerned about a number of things, but I need to know how it fits in with the pattern of where we are going. If it doesn’t fit it just doesn’t fit.
One thing they are concerned about is methyl bromide. Here in BC we don’t have the oriental fruit moth because methyl bromide is sprayed on the rootstock that comes to us from the States. We’ve argued to get rid of this as it kills some trees, and it may take two or three years for those trees to die and by then the farmer has already put that many years worth of time and effort into growing producing trees. We are currently working with the federal government to find a substitute for methyl bromide.
O&V: What do you see for the future for the BCFGA?
Steele: We are changing direction and we are looking for some new solutions to fit the time we are in.
We continue to reinvent ourselves in order to be relevant. This industry had a near-death experience a few years ago. It produced an awakening of all the new things we can do. Instead of ranting and screaming at the top of our lungs, we want to make sure that the things we are doing differently are actually mitigated to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
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