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

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

Submitted
BC VOTES 2020: John Rustad re-elected in Nechako Lakes riding

The result is based on preliminary vote count and the final results will be available after Nov.6

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

RCMP stock photo (Black Press)
Charges laid against Prince George man, 39, in drug trafficking probe

Tyler Aaron Gelowitz is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 18

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan celebrates projected majority NDP government, but no deadline for $1,000 deposit

Premier-elect says majority government will allow him to tackle issues across all of B.C.

FILE – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Premier John Horgan during a press conference at the BC Transit corporate office following an announcement about new investments to improve transit for citizens in the province while in Victoria on Thursday, July 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Trudeau congratulates Horgan on NDP’s election victory in British Columbia

Final count won’t be available for three weeks due to the record number of 525,000 ballots cast by mail

Comedic actor Seth Rogen, right, and business partner Evan Goldberg pose in this undated handout photo. When actor Seth Rogen was growing up and smoking cannabis in Vancouver, he recalls there was a constant cloud of shame around the substance that still lingers. Rogen is determined to change that. (Maarten de Boer ohoto)
Seth Rogen talks about fighting cannabis stigma, why pot should be as accepted as beer

‘I smoke weed all day and every day and have for 20 years’

Provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau speaks at Provincial Green Party headquarters at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe in Victoria. (Arnold Lim / Black Press)
VIDEO: Furstenau leads BC Greens to win first riding outside of Vancouver Island

Sonia Furstenau became leader of BC Greens one week before snap election was called

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps NDP candidate Coquitlam-Burke Mountain candidate Fin Donnelly following a seniors round table in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, October 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horgan, NDP head for majority in B.C. election results

Record number of mail-in ballots may shift results

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

Most Read