Apple trees at Cache Creek in 2019, the compact, high-yield variety that has helped B.C. stay competitive, along with popular new strains like Gala and Ambrosia. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Tough time for tree fruits as some B.C. farm products soar

Province reports record 2019 sales, largely due to cannabis

The B.C. government reports farm product revenues hit a record in 2019, up to $3.9 billion, with increases in dairy, beef, eggs, chicken, blueberries, grapes and nursery plants.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham credits the improved revenues to the province’s work in “helping farmers farm and strengthening food security,” as well as promotion through the Buy BC program in stores. But two thirds of the revenue increase over 2018 is from cannabis sales, which rose $300 million as legal retail expanded.

Dairy sales were up $47 million, beef up $25 million and field vegetables increased $17.5 million, with egg and nursery sales both up $14 million. But farmers note those are gross sales, not net earnings. And a chronic labour shortage has been sharply increased by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has followed a 28-per-cent increase in the minimum wage rate since 2017.

Like Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley berry and vegetable growers, tree fruit farmers are struggling to find enough workers for the labour-intensive picking of cherries and apples, the staple crops for the Okanagan and other fruit growing areas. Despite the B.C. government’s nation-leading effort to support agriculture by providing quarantine for foreign workers coming in from Mexico. A recent survey by the B.C. Fruit Growers Association found that more than 80 per cent of growers expect to reduce production this year due to COVID-19, labour market conditions and a slump in price for apples, by far B.C.’s biggest crop.

B.C. apple prices have been below cost of production for the last three years, after staging a recovery with the popularity of new made-in-B.C. varieties such as Gala and Ambrosia, said Glen Lucas, general manager of the BCFGA. Washington state’s apple production has grown rapidly to 50 times as big as B.C.’s, and harvest costs are rising.

“In the very short term, and the survey was asking about this year, that means just walking away from blocks, just leaving the apples and the cherries hanging,” Lucas said in an interview. “And that will most likely happen with some of the apple varieties that have been impacted by low prices the most.”

In the longer term, the B.C. industry expects continued reduction in apple acreage that has been seen over 50 years, as vineyards and other crops take their place.

“With this three-year hit on prices and increased costs, lots of regulatory costs, lots of actual cash costs going up, we’ll start seeing apple acres being pulled out,” Lucas said. “We’re concerned about food security and what that means, and I guess that gets back to the cannabis and the wine grape production.”

RELATED: Okanagan farm puts apple soda in 400 grocery stores

RELATED: B.C. cherry crop suffers losses from wet, cool spring

B.C.’s cherry crop is a smaller but profitable segment, which has struggled for the second straight year with frequent rains and this year, frost. Wet conditions mean using helicopters and large mobile fans to dry cherry trees, and reduced yield.

“There are fewer cherries, but what I’ve seen have been phenomenal,” Lucas said. “And I hear the apple crop is looking good. We are expecting good quality.”

The province’s Vancouver quarantine facility for foreign farm workers has prevented the kind of virus outbreaks seen in Ontario, where 14-day isolation takes place at farms. But even with that, the association expects to get through 2020 with only 60 to 70 per cent of the usual mostly Mexican workforce.

Mexico is having its own struggle with COVID-19, where widespread outbreaks have shut the government’s visa application centre and the labour ministry recruiting office.

“Buses aren’t running because of restrictions, or borders between states in Mexico will be closed and people can’t get past them,” Lucas said. “It’s just been one thing after another.”


@tomfletcherbc
tfletcher@blackpress.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

BC legislatureCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

85-year-old Comox sprinter competes in worldwide virtual track meet

Toronto was slated to be the host city for the 2020 World… Continue reading

City of Courtenay 2019 annual report available for review

The City of Courtenay has released the draft 2019 Annual Report highlighting… Continue reading

Scaled-down Comox Valley Exhibition set for Aug. 28-30

The Comox Valley Exhibition is a go for 2020. The annual event… Continue reading

Military personnel relocation producing many foreign licence plates in the Comox Valley

Comox Mayor Russ Arnott is asking the public to consider the possible… Continue reading

VIDEO: Otter pups learn to swim at B.C. wildlife rescue facility

Watch Critter Care’s Nathan Wagstaffe help seven young otters go for their first dip

Crews work overnight to try to put out wildfire on Pender Island

Fire department and B.C. Wildfire Service crews extinguishing fire in ‘extremely difficult terrain’

Police find used, uncapped needle tied to handrail in Vancouver Island Park

Officers believe the needle was put there with the intent to harm someone

Michael Buble among 13 British Columbians to receive Order of B.C.

Ceremony will be delayed to 2021 due to COVID-19

U.S. border communities feel loss of Canadian tourists, shoppers and friends

Restrictions on non-essential travel across the Canada-U.S. border have been in place since March 2`

Rollout of COVID-19 Alert app faces criticism over accessibility

App requires users to have Apple or Android phones made in the last five years, and a relatively new operating system

Alleged impaired driver sparks small wildfire near Lytton after crash: B.C. RCMP

Good Samaritans prevented the blaze from getting out of control

Most Read