Victoria could help agriculture more, says NDP

Provincial NDP Leader Adrian Dix and agriculture critic Lana Popham shared their ideas about supporting agriculture last week.

ADRIAN DIX LISTENS as Eatmore Sprouts owner Carmen Wakeling and Lana Popham discuss agriculture.

Standing in a greenhouse at Eatmore Sprouts and Greens Ltd. — which they described as a symbol of B.C. farmers meeting the demand for local, organic food — provincial NDP Leader Adrian Dix and agriculture critic Lana Popham shared their ideas about supporting agriculture last week.

Dix and Popham were at the Courtenay farm Thursday as part of a provincewide tour advocating measures to bolster B.C. agriculture.

“This business here is just an example of the opportunities that are available all over B.C.,” said Dix. “The government of B.C. provides less support to agriculture than any other government in Canada, and in the recent Jobs Plan report from the province, there was really nothing there of any significance for agriculture. I think we have a remarkable domestic market here, so we propose things that could make things better.”

Dix believes B.C.’s agriculture industry has a lot of potential, and he thinks the government could do more to support it.

“This is an extraordinary agricultural area, and this business is a symbol of what can be done to meet the growing demand for organic food,” he said. “People in farming aren’t asking for a lot, but I think there are some specific things we can do to make the industry better, to have the economy grow better and support young farmers … We want the government to make changes, and if they do so, we’ll be encouraging them, but if they don’t, this is going to be a key part of our economic plan as we go into the next election.”

Dix and Popham are proposing the government reinvest in the Buy BC marketing program, bring back support for organic farming within the Ministry of Agriculture and offer local foods in hospitals and schools through local purchasing by health authorities and public schools.

Dix believes the Buy BC program has “huge resonance” in B.C.

“There’s a lot of talk of export, but we have a domestic market that’s significant for agriculture, and we don’t essentially take advantage of that enough,” he said.

A focus for Popham has been helping get young people into farming.

“We have this opportunity where the communities are very engaged in local food  and local food production,” she said. “People are interested. We’re at a critical point — we have to protect our Agricultural Land Reserve and our prime agricultural land; at the same time, we don’t want to lose any of the skillsets of the farmers who are at retirement age.”

Popham would like to see the organic extension agent reinstated — something she believes would also help support young farmers.

“I think one of the biggest blows over the last couple years to the organic industry was losing the organic extension officer,” she said. “For the farmers in my area, it was a service they used a lot and the young farmers used a lot to try to find out more about crop planning and things like that that are the basics, but also, sometimes disease will take a hold on a farm and you really do need some outside advice. You need the advice of an agrologist, and the extension officer was doing that. So that’s something we’re really looking at because it’s very valuable for the investment.”

Agriculture Minister Don McRae, MLA for the Comox Valley, points out that the government’s Jobs Plan targets eight sectors, and agri-foods is one of those sectors.

“Agri-foods, if you look at the numbers for farming in B.C., it’s absolutely huge,” he said. “There are $2.4 billion in farm gate sales in B.C. We export $2.5 billion of agriculture products from the province, and farming, whether it’s the producing or processing, is worth $9.6 billion, employing 60,000 people. This industry is absolutely essential to B.C.”

In the organic sector, while the organic extension agent position has ended, the province still has a sector specialist, explained McRae.

The organic extension agent was a limited agreement with the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC), as the province gave three years of funding so the CAOBC could make the position self-sustaining, he noted.

“I’ve met with the organic industry regularly, and I think it has huge growth potential in B.C.,” he said. “Everybody wants more obviously, but I think there’s a really good working relationship between the organic sector and the government.”

As for Buy BC, McRae agrees that promoting B.C. products is important, and he is looking at other ways to promote local products, such as using the Internet.

The Buy BC program is not dead, as it is now being run by the BC Agriculture Council, he noted.

As for using the government’s purchasing power to increase the use of locally-grown fruit and produce in hospitals and schools, McRae says Dix must have forgotten the $3-million expansion of the BC School Fruit and Vegetable Nutritional Program announced last spring right here in the Comox Valley.

“The hospitals do have a policy of buying local when possible,” he said. “Just like consumers, hospitals and institutions know it’s good quality and it’s fresh.”

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