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Opinion: Federal government must help Okanagan grape growers

MP Richard Cannings says agriculture is a pillar of economy in S. Okanagan-West Kootenay
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Wine growers face significant losses, with crop yields cut by as much as 56 per cent, due to a severe cold snap that gripped the province in December 2022. (Pixabay.com)

Agriculture has long been one of the pillars of the economy in the South Okanagan-West Kootenay region, but it has never been easy to be an orchardist or vineyard owner here. The federal government has been an important partner for farmers to help them get through weather disasters, technical problems and international trade barriers.

Weather can be an enemy as well as a friend to farmers, with winter frosts, cold springs, scorching summers and late autumn snowfalls lining up to cut into any gains made from a full year of hard work. Perhaps the biggest issue facing the agriculture sector this year in the region is the major winter-kill event faced by grape growers. A warm fall followed by an abrupt deep frost severely damaged or killed vines throughout the southern Interior.

I’ve met with grape growers, wineries and representatives from government agencies to find the best way to support impacted growers. The federal government came up with a funding package for Ontario and Nova Scotia grape growers recently to help them replant their vineyards after a similar event, so I’m hoping that a joint effort by the B.C. and federal governments will support the wine industry through a difficult recovery process. This industry is worth over $2 billion to the B.C. economy and touches so many other parts of the local economy.

READ MORE: Vineyards decimated by cold snap, most will have to replant

The fruit growing sector has faced huge competition from new plantings in Washington since irrigating the Columbia plateau was made possible by the Grand Coulee Dam almost a century ago. BC growers couldn’t compete on the size of the orchards—Washington operations were ten times the size—so had to be innovative to survive, with new varieties, high density plantings and developing new high-value markets in Asia.

The federal research station in Summerland has been in important contributor to the continued development of agriculture here. Most of the sweet cherries grown in the world today are varieties developed in Summerland—Lapins, Sweetheart, Stella and more. The Ambrosia apple was discovered in Cawston. Planting and irrigation techniques were developed in Summerland to ensure that growers can still be productive in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

The growers themselves have been working hard to make sure their supply chain is as efficient and modern as possible. BC Tree Fruits, the main cooperative dealing with fruit sales in this province, has undertaken substantial consolidation of its packing facilities over the past years, and I took part in a ceremony recently to celebrate the start of a major upgrade to their packing plant in Oliver. When the project is complete, it will be the main tree fruit packing plant in BC and will be second to none in the world for high tech sorting and packing.

But once orchardists, farmers and ranchers have grown their products they have to sell them to make a living, and trade in agricultural products is becoming increasingly complex in today’s world. Foreign markets have always been important but as free trade agreements have become more widespread so have ways for countries to create non-tariff barriers to protect their own markets.

I sit on the House of Commons International Trade Committee, and we’ve been hearing from witnesses across the sector on this subject, including beef and pork producers who find markets closed because of health concerns and canola exporters who are stymied by red tape around seed contaminants. Canada needs to work closely with trading partners to make sure standards are the same and properly managed.

Open markets are also threatened by the dumping of products at below-cost pricing. B.C. cherry growers complained this year that American distributors were selling substandard early-season cherries into the Canadian market, bringing down the prices for premium Canadian cherries that ripen later in the summer. Free trade agreements prohibit this sort of transaction, but it is very difficult, expensive and time-consuming to successfully fight this before a trade tribunal.

Climate change and disrupted supply chains have threatened our food security, and it is more important than ever to support the local agriculture sector. As consumers, we can do this by ensuring we are buying local produce, and when possible, buying directly from farmers and producers. I’ll continue to work hard to make sure the federal government does their part.

— Richard Cannings, MP of South Okanagan-West Kootenay