By Keith Lacey
Special to OsoyoosToday
The president of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association says government-enforced wage hikes combined with growing challenges related to spring flooding and summer drought have brought the Okanagan’s fruit-growing industry “to the tipping point.”
During a speech to kick off the BCFGA’s 130th annual general meeting, taking place at Penticton’s Lakeside Resort, Pinder Dhaliwal talked about the many challenges facing the region’s tree-fruit farmers heading into the 2019 growing season.
The biggest across the region, he said, is finding enough workers to help grow and harvest tree fruits, and the rising cost of hiring workers as minimum wage and piece rates increase.
“As we know, the start of the year is not without its challenges,” he said Tuesday at the beginning of the two-day conference.
Foreign Workers program critical
An increasing number of fruit growers who rely on the long-established temporary foreign workers program to hire workers are being subjected to “integrity reviews and audits” by the same government that introduced the program, he added.
The BCFGA is implementing a communications strategy to highlight the issues being faced by fruit farmers, he said.
That strategy, being shared with provincial and federal agricultural ministers, clearly states the frustration and concerns with government policy relating to hiring workers for their farms, he said.
The message: without numerous government-sponsored programs that allow foreign workers to come to Canada to grow and harvest fruit, the industry would be facing catastrophic consequences.
“That is why we continue to lead and support the temporary foreign worker program and seasonal agricultural worker program,” said Mr. Dhaliwal, noting these programs are largely responsible for keeping the industry alive and successful for over 60 years.
“We need to make sure that government actions don’t disrupt the supplied labour that we need to allow us to grow and harvest our crops.”
Rising wages threaten profitability
Recent and pending increases to the province’s minimum wage will have a severe impact on the profitability and viability of many fruit-farm operations, he said.
“Operating costs at family farm operations will continue to increase due to regulatory burdens and government-mandated wage increases,” he said. “Another minimum wage increase is coming into effect on June 1 and will see the minimum wage increase to $13.85 per hour.
“For the farmer, the challenge of remaining economically viable in the quest to continue producing the highest-quality fruit has become even more difficult.”
As well, piece rates introduced last April were scheduled to come into effect on Jan. 1. They would see farm workers who harvest fruit by hand have their pay based on the volume of crops they pick rather than an hourly rate.
The minimum wage for pickers paid by piece rate would increase by 11.5 per cent.
The BCFGA and other industry stakeholders are vigorously fighting these proposed piece-rate hikes, he said.
A consultant was hired to prepare a report on these wage hikes, and provincial Agriculture Minister Lana Popham has the consultant’s report on her desk this week, he said.
“We are at a tipping point whereby the majority of the domestic food supply that is grown in British Columbia is at real risk with these wage increases and the possible change in the piece rate,” Mr. Dhaliwal said.
The current piece rates offered by Okanagan fruit farmers allow pickers the opportunity to make wages far above the industry standard, and allowing double-digit percentage increases would be devastating, he said.
Replant program a success
On a more positive note, the provincial government’s multimillion-dollar replant program introduced five years ago continues to reap big rewards across the region, said Mr. Dhaliwal.
The seven-year program introduced in 2014 has committed funding until 2021.
“The replant program provides approximately 20 to 25 per cent, or roughly $30,000 needed to replant an acre of land,” he said.
The BCFGA is pushing for a “seven- or eight-year renewal of the replant program” and is confident the provincial government will want to continue sponsoring this successful initiative, Mr. Dhaliwal said.
An additional $5-million competitive fund established last year to go toward research, infrastructure upgrades and strategic marketing of current and future products has also been a big success and will hopefully continue, he added.
Two consecutive years of extended spring flooding and three years of summer drought also present serious challenges to fruit farmers across the region, he said.
Okanagan fruit among the best grown in North America
Despite these weather challenges, local farmers continue to produce some of the best fruit grown in North America, he said.
“Water is the new gold in our industry,” he said. “We understand it takes water to grow the food and keep our desert valley green and give British Columbians and the world the best fruit we have to offer.”
Premier John Horgan and Ms. Popham were scheduled to speak Wednesday morning. However, those plans have been cancelled due to snowy weather across the province.