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A Fruitful Century

The Future of the B.C. Fruit Industry

A fruitful century

by Gerald Geen (President since 1985)

Good orchardists with updated plantings will be here for years to come. Orcharding is a long term commitment and those who plan to be in business long term will plan for constant upgrading of the orchard. Farm failures are prevalent at this time, for a variety of reasons. Farmers with debt load which can’t be supported by the cash flow, including government assistance, will almost definitely fail. Higher density plantings with smaller trees will be the way of the future. Intensive capital investment is required to upgrade. The benefit will come through higher yields of high quality product-and one which is in demand by the consumer. Proper site selection in terms of growing season and freedom from spring frost for high density plantings will be critical. With the cash costs of renovating an acre of orchard currently exceeding $10,000, a substandard site cannot be justified. The current 25,000 acres of orchard in the Okanagan, Similkameen, and Kootenay Valleys will shrink. Fruit trees which are now old, particularly apples and pears, will likely not be replaced if they exist on a poor site. Eventually, those orchards will be removed and the land devoted to other uses. Orchardists themselves are an aging group. It is unlikely that a man of sixty is going to be willing to make an intensive capital investment of $10,000 an acre when he knows that the recovery period is nine or ten years.

The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement will impact negatively on the B.C. soft fruit industry because of the loss of seasonal tariffs which have given Canadian soft fruit producers some measure of protection against low-priced tail-end soft fruits coming into Canada from other countries. There will always be room for a small soft fruit industry in B.C. to serve the local market. A portion of the current soft fruit acreage will be going into high density apples. In addition, the B.C. Grape Marketing Board has indicated that about 2400 acres of grapes will be pulled out because B.C. grape growers have lost their preferential tax treatment on domestic wines. This was a decision taken under the Free Trade Agreement and a ruling under GATT. A portion of those grape acres will be targetted for high density apple production.

Pressures will continue to exist on orchard land close to the major valley cities. Much of the B.C. orchard area has great aesthetic attributes. People want to live in these areas and, as such, the land base will always be under pressure for residential or commercial development. I predict that the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve will stay in place for many years. There will be modifications to the mandate of the Agricultural Land Commission. I sense that we are headed toward a time where local land issues will be resolved more at the local level and less by the provincial Land Commission.

All factors considered, I think by the year 2000, the area devoted to fruit production in B.C. might shrink to 15,000 or 18,000 acres. The productivity of those acres will be higher than it is currently. I do not see a significant reduction in total apple production in our valleys. The lost acres will be mostly compensated for by the increased productivity of the newly renovated acres. The apple industry will continue to produce in the six to nine million box range.

The B.C. fruit industry will continue to work with the provincial and federal governments to maintain and develop the most efficient fruit industry possible. This will require a continuation and improvement of financial programs to assist the industry, as well as policy decisions directed toward maintaining the long term health of the industry. The B.C. apple industry is currently working with Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to try to bring about a national marketing board for Canadian apples. The concept is that we in Canada want the ability to control domestic production and to set prices. We also require border controls. The possible creation of new national marketing boards in Canada has been agreed to in principle under the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. If Canadian apple producers are successful in developing a national marketing board with import control and price setting powers, the B.C. apple industry and, indeed, the Canadian apple industry will be strengthened enormously.

The possibility of creating national agencies for soft fruits seems less likely. Those commodities will continue to be supported financially in times of need by various provincial and federal programs.

* * * * *

At the Centennial Picnic, 1989. Keep on pulling.

Forecasts and expectations vary. But it is clear that the British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association will continue to represent the interests of tree fruit growers in the province. The B.C.F.G.A. has grown from a membership of fewer than a hundred in its first year, made up mostly of backyard growers in Victoria and the Lower Mainland, to its current status as representative of an entire industry. At the end of 1988 the Association had 1647 full members, operating 23,630 acres of orchard; 52 associated members, through Westbank Packers Ltd., operating 739 acres of orchard; and approximately 300 non-operating associate members. What the organization and its membership will be like after another century, likely to be as tumultuous and as change-filled as the first hundred years, is beyond reasonable prediction. But as long as there are orchardists growing fruit in British Columbia, the B.C.F.G.A. will be speaking and working on their behalf, even when the job seems at times a little like the Red Queen’s race from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else-if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all of the running you can do, just to keep in the same place. If you want to get someplace else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”