Pent up frustration over what’s being viewed by farmers as a city snub in agricultural policy-making could make for a heated public showdown in Kelowna council chambers.
“The BC Cherry Growers Association is 130 years old and it was not brought to the table for a face-to-face discussion about temporary farm worker housing regulations — that’s an issue that’s very important to the industry,” said Sukhpaul Bal, a local farmer and president of the BC Cherry Growers Association.
Bal and nearly 50 other farmers were, however, face-to-face with council for the first reading to amendments of the farm housing policy approval, which triggered the public hearing that’s scheduled for May 2.
The city is implementing regulations that set out how many temporary workers are allowed housing on a single farm property, how long they can stay and where structures can be placed.
Without special approval from council, the regulations also stipulate that the maximum number of workers allowed on one property is 40. City staff say 95 per cent of farms, which are employing temporary foreign workers from Mexico and Jamaica, fall below that number and that’s why this regulation will be red-tape reducing.
Bal said it’s a skewed view given the way the industry has evolved and how land has changed hands in recent years. Ultimately, these regulations will penalize larger operations that may need more than the 40 workers by making them go through a lengthy process.
And if they can’t get the workers they need housed and ready for harvest in a timely manner, there’s a potential that crops will be ruined.
“You can’t say a policy catches 95 per cent of the industry without revealing that the smaller percentage of farmers does the greatest amount of farming,” he said, explaining 40 farm-worker alottment is per farm owner, not land parcel.
“There are five to six of us farming the greatest amount of land and there’s a trend of consolidation. Young people aren’t coming to the industry, so larger growers are buying or leasing middle sized acreages — they already have 150 acres so having another 50 is not a big deal.”
The segment that brings in the most workers, he said, will be put in a precarious position with these regulations.
Regardless, seven councillors voted in favour of sending the set of regulations to a public hearing, and two were against.
It was clear councillors both for and against knew they were setting the stage for a contentious and likely lengthy public process.
“There are some in this room that ….would like to see council stay completely out of their business,” said Mayor Colin Basran. “Then there are some in this room who, no matter what we do, we will never please and they will not like anything we do.”
Basran said he’d been informed by city staff that the new regulations would make navigating the rules for getting housing for temporary farm workers a lot easier for the of majority farmers and those who need more should be able to get what they need by following the process.
“So, lets at least go to public hearing and hear what you have to say,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, we as a council have to try and find a balance between what all of our residents want.”
Bal balked at that suggestion.
The public hearing process, he said, shouldn’t be where the nuances of industry changing regulations should be hashed out. If it was a high-rise proposal being discussed, he said, council would have knows what they were dealing with well in advance of the public hearing.
“The mayor said said didn’t have all the information, and he said his staff consulted farmers, but if you don’t do a quality consultation you can’t go anywhere,” said Bal.
“City staff don’t make a living off the land, they should have talked to us. Now we’re going to a public hearing and it will be a situation of ‘us against them’ when we should have gone to public meeting on a positive note.”
Farmers aren’t the only ones expected to raise concerns at the meeting. There will likely also be residents of properties that live alongside these large scale farms. In recent years there have been several complaints about large scale farms bringing a number of temporary farm workers to previously quiet neighbourhoods.
Bal thinks they too need to readjust their view.
“You’ve had people move into rural areas and enjoy the greenery and love the fresh air and all that stuff, but they don’t have a lot of thought about how does this stay green or how does it function,” Bal said.
“Half of the land in Kelowna is farm land. The city is an agricultural community and yes we have urban areas, just like the big city, but in general we are an agriculture community. People who live in an agricultural areas need to know what agriculture is and what its needs are.”
The Cherry Growers Association membership, alongside members of the BC Fruit Growers Association, have been rallying members to go to the May 2 hearing to express their concerns over the potential regulations.