Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm, along with BCFGA president Jeet Dukhia, tours one of the farms hit by the severe hail storm on August 12 in Kelowna. Dukhia is now demanding the minister reintroduce comprehensive insurance for market conditions as well.
The BC Fruit Growers Association says drastic cuts to the Ministry of Agriculture have put the future of farming at risk in BC.
“They need to double the budget,” says President Jeet Dukhia. “We now have the lowest budget for agriculture in the country, lower even than Newfoundland. I was shocked by that.”
Dukhia says the Ministry had a budget of $130 million to $140 million in the mid-1990s.
“We are sitting at about $68 million right now, or about half what the budget was in the mid-Nineties, and that’s not even accounting for inflation,” Dukhia says. “That’s pretty bad.”
But Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm says the fruit growers may not be comparing apples to apples.
"Given shifting components, programs and responsibilities over the years, I'd be cautious about making a blanket statement that accurately compares ministry budgets to twenty years ago. I can tell you the Ministry's current budget is about $79 million.
"That's up about 16% over the year earlier and includes new dollars earmarked for greenhouse carbon tax relief and supports for the ALC."
Pimm also pointed out farmers are being exempted from carbon taxes on coloured gas and coloured diesel fuel for farm purposes.
Dukhia is among the leaders in the agriculture community who sit on a newly formed committee that is examining the future of the Agricultural Land Commission.
Dukhia and others were invited by Liberal MLA Bill Bennett, who is chairing the Core Review process.
But while Dukhia and the BCFGA are strongly in favour of the Commission and the Agricultural Land Reserve, he says support for farmers is just as important as support for farmland.
“It’s nice to support the ALR, and we should be supporting it, but on the other hand, it’s no good to have the farmland if you don’t have the farmers,” says Dukhia. “We heard from Bill Bennett that we (the Liberals) are going to support farm families, that they will support the ALR, and I hope they’re right for the sake of the next generation of farmers, and for the sake of food security in BC.
“What we would like to see is the government doing its part on farmers’ insurance. In the past, if we went through a market collapse, we could get compensation, and we would like to see those programs back in place.”
The past two or three years have been relatively good for orchardists. Apple growers, for example, have been averaging about 23 cents a pound for their crops, but Dukhia says many of those same growers are still trying to recover from the last collapse in pricing.
In four consecutive seasons apple prices plunged to about eight cents a pound, and farmers literally lost money by shipping their product to market. Apples were left to rot on the branches, while pleas to the provincial government to restore market insurance programs went unheeded.
“In the mid-nineties all of that support disappeared, and we have been through some rough times,” says Dukhia. “That was four years in a row of huge losses, and we got no help from the government at all.”
Pimm, however, disagrees that BC isn't doing enough to help farmers through times of trouble.
"Regarding insurance, there are a full suite of programs available to address both weather and market related issues facing all farmers," he says. "Over the last dozen years B.C. tree fruit growers received more than $120 million from the provincial and federal governments in response to weather-related losses and income stability programs, and more than $30 million in other funding."
Dukhia says one of his priorities on the committee will be to press for comprehensive changes in the way the BC government supports farmers, not just the land they work on. While the past two to three years saw prices recover, he expects there will be more price collapses in the years to come, and a sustained market collapse could devastate agriculture in BC for years to come.
“What we’re really talking about here affects more than just farmers,” Dukhia says. “We are talking about long-term food security for everybody. It would be a real tragedy if we lost a generation of farmers, because that is something that’s very hard to bring back once it’s gone.”
In addition to taking part in the ALR Core Review, Dukhia says the BCFGA will be lobbying one of the newer MLAs with a seat in the Okanagan Valley ... someone with a fair share of influence in Victoria.
“We have to put more pressure on the Premier,” Dukhia says bluntly. “She is the MLA for Kelowna West, and has all our orchards and our packing houses in her riding. She has to work as our MLA, not just as the premier, and we will definitely be looking for her support.”