Even though he is the eighth agriculture minister in the past decade, and growers are feeling a little desperate at their low returns for fruit, Ben Stewart was received politely at the B.C. Fruit Growers Association convention in Penticton Friday.
The feeling was that, although he may not be offering much more help than the others, he at least has a background in agriculture and has even been involved in growing tree fruits, which is encouraging.
Growers have appealed to many politicians over the years to increase the agriculture ministry budget – since it’s the lowest of any province in the country – and continue programs that support the industry. But, instead of increasing, the industry has lost ground to budgets in such ministries as health and education.
And, president Joe Sardinha noted that agriculture is an essential part of health care in B.C., yet it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison.
Stewart did advise that growers must get consumers and retailers onside.
“Eating locally is good for the environment, good for your health and good for the economy,” he commented.
He suggested growers partner with stores who will commit to go to local farmers first before shopping elsewhere for stock.
“Catch the buy-local wave,” he advised.
Instead of relying on government funding for support programs, he suggested growers establish partnerships with retailers.
However, Winfield grower Roger Bailey told him the government has a responsibility to use programs that are already in place to support the industry, for instance, by not allowing the import of produce which contains invasive pests of tree fruits.
“Political will is needed to direct these programs to work,” he said.
Stewart said he’s eaten local apples in New Zealand and in California and they don’t compare in flavour to B.C. apples. He suggested growers capitalize on that, as well as on such programs as Sterile Insect Release, which has substantially reduced the amount of chemicals used in the valley against the codling moth, because consumers appreciate a product that’s more environmentally-friendly.
He said today people have a growing interest in food, who grew it, where it comes from and what’s in it, and the industry can capitalize on that by telling its story.
One grower asked about support for some form of supply management for the industry, but Stewart was not optimistic, saying trade agreements wouldn’t permit that, and it could take a decade to undertake.