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The BC Fruit Growers Association looked for experience and media savvy in a new president this year, voting in former vice-president Fred Steele over incumbent Jeet Dukhia.
Steele served as VP until 2011 under then-president Joe Sardinha, a highly regarded leader who successfully piloted the BCFGA for many years. In the Feb. 15 election, a coalition of farmers worked to draft Steele as a presidential nominee, and corralled the votes he needed to win.
“It was a diverse group who came together and put aside their own differences to work for positive change,” said Steele. “I did not fully intend to run for the presidency until people came to me and said, will you do something? I think people wanted to have more rejuvenation of the association.”
The coalition may also have been looking for more stability. Dukhia, a cherry orchardist from Vernon, stepped in to assume control of the BCFGA after the tumultuous and short-lived leadership of Kirpal Boparai.
He resigned the presidency in December, 2012, after he broke ties with the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative.
Dukhia was seen as a moderate who brought stability back to the BCFGA, and defeated Steele in an election just one year ago.
However, not everyone was happy with the Association’s performance over the past year.
Growers suffered losses of up to $18 million after hail storms in the Central and North Okanagan, and a bout of severe frost in the South Okanagan. The BCFGA's attempt to access federal disaster relief failed, and prior to the election, the future of crop insurance dominated discussion.
As well, Dukhia had said he secured a verbal commitment from Premier Christy Clark to restore the subsidy for replanting programs, but that funding announcement has not yet materialized.
The election did not fall on a difference in platform, as both Steele and Dukhia agreed on all of the critical issues. Rather, growers appeared to feel Steele had a better chance of solving some of the bigger problems facing growers this year.
In a well-crafted speech, Steele pointed out he has a media and communications background that would help the BCFGA improve its public image, and wrestle a better deal from government.
“The first (priority) is to continue with a long-term, 10 years or more replant program, and the second one is we have to ensure that farmers are covered from one end of the season to the other,” Steele said. “We have some proposals we can put forward to do that.”
Steele believes his long career in radio broadcasting will help boost the growers’ image. Previous president Joe Sardinha was frequently features in the media and on programs with the CBC. Steele says providing a strong public voice for growers will be critical in dealing with government on a range of issues.
In addition to crop insurance and replanting, Steele said there are several issues that need addressing in the next 12 months. Among them:
- Working with the BC government on the Core Review of the Agricultural Land Reserve;
- Ensuring orchardists’ water needs are considered in the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty;
- Lobbying for federal subsidies to build washrooms for fruit industry workers;
- Lobbying against the acceptance of the Arctic Apple, a genetically modified fruit developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits.
Of those issues, Steele says the ALR review is the most critical, as it will define agriculture for decades to come.
“I’m hoping that what they’ll do is take a look at it and not diminish the value of farmland in British Columbia,” Steele said. “You don’t want to be taking prime land out of production.”
That said, Steele supports the idea of doing a review, and believes Agriculture Pat Pimm is right to say some parcels of land should be excluded from the ALR.
“What happened years ago, and the reason we are having a core review at this time ... is the ALR came into being and no one wanted to change anything because you would have protests on either side,” he said. “So what ends up happening is it becomes a sacred cow and no one will discuss anything.
“There are pieces of land in this province that maybe shouldn’t have been in there, and there are other pieces of land that are not in there that should have been, and those are things you need to look at as well.”
Complete Results for the 2014 BCFGA Election
- Fred Steele (Kelowna), President
- Bhupinder Dhaliwal (Oliver), Vice-President
- Peter Simonsen (Penticton), South District
- Sukhdeep Brar (Summerland), South District
- Ravinder Bains (Keremeos), South District
- Surjit Nagra (Kelowna), North District
- Niel Dendy (Kelowna), North District
- Sukhdev Goraya (Kelowna), North District