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COLUMN: From the Hill -- BC apple farmers and food security

Richard Cannings, MP

Many sectors have been hard hit by the pandemic, and agriculture is one of them.  Despite concerns about food security and pleas to buy local, orchardists and farmers in the region have had a number of serious headwinds facing them over the past year.

B.C. apple growers have had to deal with huge production from just across the border in Washington State for decades. They have responded over the years with innovative practices that dramatically boosted production and value per acre.  But lately it has been harder and harder to make a living in apples.

While consumers pay about $2 a pound for apples in grocery stores, local producers often get only about 12 cents a pound—and it costs more than 30 cents a pound to produce apples.  The difference goes to big distributors and big box retail stores such as Walmart and Loblaw that control prices across the continent.

To add insult to injury, last year many of the big chains charged new fees to suppliers to help the stores expand even more.  And the growers are forced to pay—they are selling a perishable product and really have no choice but to accept the price they are offered.

As if it wasn’t difficult enough competing with U.S. producers, last year, United States growers were given a 7 cents per pound subsidy from their government as a support in times of COVID.  Suddenly Canadian producers were even farther behind.

The big impact of COVID on local fruit growers and grape growers has been the drastic reduction in the number of workers from Mexico and the Caribbean.  These skilled workers, essential for pruning the trees and vines and harvesting the crops, had to deal with a lack of available flights and stiff quarantine restrictions to enter Canada.  This year promises to be even more difficult, with added requirements for COVID tests, expensive quarantine arrangements and more cancelled flights.

The federal government has an "Agristability" program that was designed to help farmers through bad years.  Originally, growers would qualify if their receipts were only 15 % below average.  That was dropped to 30% below average a few years ago.  But apple growers have had several bad years in a row, so their average receipts are already low. Now it is almost impossible to qualify even in a very bad year.  At the very least, the government should return to 15% below average as the trigger for qualification for an Agristability grant.

For vineyard owners and wine makers, the continuing problem they face is selling their products direct to consumers in other provinces.  Only BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia allow consumers to buy wine directly from other provinces.  We need to keep the pressure on provinces that still prohibit cross-border sales, and the new private members bill put forward by Dan Albas serves to keep the spotlight on that issue and those provinces that maintain their barriers.  I will support that effort and any other initiative that promotes the reduction of interprovincial barriers to wine sales.

Most Canadians say yes when asked whether they support buying local products, including foods such as fruit and vegetables.  However, most of us too often look for the most inexpensive apples or wine when shopping.  So, next time you are buying apples or wine, remember the difficulties faced by hard-working local producers, and buy local.  Try to buy direct from the producers if possible—you are not only getting high quality products but you are also contributing to our local economy.