‘Real threat to food security’: pandemic blamed for drop in Okanagan’s fruit production

Do new federal rules for fruit pickers from outside of B.C. go far enough?
Global BC reporter Keith Baldrey asks Health Minister Adrian Dix about new rules released today from the Agriculture Ministry for fruit pickers coming to the Okanagan from other parts of the country where COVID-19 numbers are higher.

The price of Okanagan fruit is likely to cost consumers more for the foreseeable future.

The rising cost has been blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.

“If supplies fall, which it apparently is going to because that’s what growers have indicated, then the prices will go up,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association (BCFGA).”It’s supply and demand.”

Read more: Okanagan cherry crops produce less this year but yield bigger fruit: producers

According to a recent survey conducted by the BCFGA, more than 67 per cent of Okanagan tree fruit growers said they have reduced fruit production as a result of uncertainties and risks created by COVID-19.

Sixty growers were surveyed out of 390 members; half online and half by phone.

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“A part of that is labour availability and just all the headaches of making sure that there’s enough labour,” Lucas told Global News.

The survey indicated that 87 per cent of farmers were concerned about not having enough labour to meet normal production needs.

But financial pressures are also contributing to the significant drop in fruit production.

“Eighty-one per cent [of farmers] said that they are concerned about the extra costs of COVID-related health guidelines that they have to implement on the farm,” Lucas said. “So that financial pressure is there as well.”

The BCFGA also said less fruit being produced is a real threat to food security as growers are forced to cut crops to stay afloat.

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“I’m deeply concerned about our food security going forward,” Lucas said.

Read more: Shortage of Mexican workers leads to request for Okanagan residents to work on farms

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The bleak picture from the survey adds more pressure to an already struggling fruit industry.

“We knew things would be bad coming into the growing season this year, but these numbers are extremely troubling even to those of us in the industry,” said Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the BCFGA. “These numbers should worry anyone concerned about where their food will be coming from this fall, and how much it’s going to cost.”

According to the BCFGA, the last few years have been tough because in many cases the cost to produce has actually been higher than the price farmers receive for their crops.

Now with COVID-19 making things more difficult and highlighting the importance of food security, the BCFGA is calling on the government to help by enhancing programs to help farmers get by.

“We called them risk management programs so it’s almost like an insurance type of program where, if there is a downturn, growers know that there’s a backstop there,” Lucas said. “That they just won’t be left to sink and if they don’t have that, they stop producing and that’s what’s happening now.”

In an email to Global News, B.C.’s Agriculture Ministry stated the government has and continues to help growers in many ways, including paying to quarantine 3,400 foreign workers before they headed out to farms, with another 2,000 more expected this summer.

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The ministry also stated that it has established the B.C. AgriStability Enhancement Program for 2019 and 2020, which provides increased protection for farmers who have lost income due to weather, extreme market-price fluctuations or natural disaster.

The compensation rate as a result of that program has gone up from 70 to 80 per cent.

The ministry also told Global News its staff have and will continue to work with producers to get their crops assessed and claims processed, when it is clear what portion of the crop can no longer be harvested.

According to the BCFGA, the interior’s tree fruit industry represents 800 growers, operating orchards that generate $118 million in wholesale revenue and contribute $776 million in economic activity.

Coronavirus: Growing concern about possible influx of fruit pickers to Okanagan
Coronavirus: Growing concern about possible influx of fruit pickers to Okanagan