Tuesday, October 09, 2007

BC and Agriculture

Last week I had a quick talk with Ben West, who is running for leader of the Green Party of BC,

The substance was about agriculture in BC. Rural BC and farmers have been a passionate interest of mine for many, many years. It seems as if there is no real solution to long term success and stability for farming in BC. In the process of pointing out the systemic nature the problems, I realized that there are very few people who are looking at the economics of farming in BC.

My interest began back in about 1980 when I first worked as a fruit picker in the Okanagan. I fell in love with having an orchard as a lifestyle though I am smart enough it is not the career for me. I asked a lot of questions about the economics and found out that it is very marginal.

I picked cherries and in some years the weather did not cooperate - rain at the wrong time ruins them and frost at blossom time makes for a tiny crop. In the years where the crop was very good, a problem that would happen is that the market would be saturated with cherries from further south. To really benefit from the crop, you needed to have good weather at blossom time, at picking time and to have the weather worked against growers further south. Very years worked out like this.

I spent a number of years working for Brian Hardmann in Naramata. I remember him telling me that the rent he had to pay for an orchard he leased was 40% of the value of the crop. I thought this number was insane and then he explained that the rented land had a lower cost for him than the land he owned. Remember that in the late 1970s and early 80s the mortgage rates were in the range of 15 to 20%. Meanwhile he had all this uncertainty about his crop - maybe one year in three made good money and one in five was a big money maker.

I also worked in down in Oliver for Gordon Hahn a couple of times when I was in University. The Hahns are also Baltic Germans. Gordon's father bought the orchard back in the 1950s. My father picked fruit there a couple of times back in the 1950s during IWA strikes.

I remember sitting with Gordon and his parents and talking about the business side of growing fruit. I kept thinking that there has to be a way for there to be a better return for fruit. I remember writing in their guest book that I would find an answer. It is now over 20 years later and I do not have answer. I do understand agriculture in BC better but I still have no clear answers.

There are specific reasons BC farmers are having troubles:
  • Scale of operation - most BC farms are small scale one person or part time operations
  • We do not fit the mold of how the federal government views agriculture
  • There is very little infrastructure in place to get the product to a market
Each of these things is part of why there is trouble in BC. I will look at all three over the next few weeks along with some of the work I have done and some partial solutions.

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