Fruit growers in British Columbia met with agriculture minister Ben Stewart on Friday to ask for additional funding.
“Agriculture is being left off the table,” said Denise MacDonald, a member of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association board and a Summerland orchardist.
She said the latest provincial budget, presented last week, cut agriculture funding from $69 million to $67 million. Even without the cut, MacDonald said orchardists in the province are underfunded when compared with their counterparts in the rest of Canada.
“To be at the national average, we would need $100 million,” she said.
The low funding, when coupled with low returns for farmers, presents a dismal scenario.
Joe Sardinha, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association and a fruit grower in Summerland, said expenses for orchardists are higher than the prices they can expect from their fruit.
For last fall’s apple crop, the average price was 12.6 cents a pound while the cost of production was 22 cents.
Sardinha said the fruit industry provides roughly $200 million worth of economic activity each year.
While orchardists have faced difficult conditions over the last several years, he said the fruit industry remains important.
“If we don’t produce our own apples, consumers are going to see a dramatic rise in prices,” he said. “Once you lose your domestic supply, it becomes more lucrative for those who are exporting.”
MacDonald said the fruit industry is closing and selling some of its packing houses as it consolidates operations, but the existing packing houses have not been sold and as a result, the fruit growers must pay tax on the facilities.
She said B.C. residents would like the Agricultural Land Reserve to remain and are willing to pay fair prices for their fruit, but public policy and profits for the middlemen are taking their toll on the industry.
“It comes down to the loyalty of the consumer to support the farmer,” she said. “We just want a fair price for that box of apples.”
While some agricultural products such as eggs and dairy products are controlled through a supply management system, fruit is not under such controls.
As a result, B.C. apples are competing with fruit from Washington and New Zealand.
“For some reason, horticulture is thrown to free enterprise,” she said.
She would like to see changes to the fruit industry, but not necessarily a supply managed model.
“There are ways to give us some predictability and stability,” she said. “Let’s level the playing field.”