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.”
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.”