The province is being asked to invest more than $30 million in the orchard industry by purchasing strategic pieces of land in Okanagan communities from the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative.
That money would then free up the packinghouse to invest in updated technology and more automation which would ultimately reduce packing costs and help industry compete on a more-level playing field on world apple markets.
The recommendation is just one of 12 in the final report of the Tree Fruit Industry Working Group which has been meeting for the past year. That was chaired by former agriculture deputy minister Larry Pedersen, who also wrote the final report.
The properties include about two hectares of lake frontage in Naramata where the packinghouse is closed; two hectares in downtown Summerland, where another was recently closed; the three-hectare downtown Kelowna packinghouse on Clement Avenue, which is still in operation but would be moved; and a one-hectare storage facility in Oyama.
Maintenance, utilities and taxes on the properties is costly for the co-operative, but board chairman Rob Dawson said they don’t intend to ‘firesale’ them.
The first phase of the working group’s effort involved a comparison of industry costs with those just south of the border in Washington State which showed that labour costs make up the ‘lions’ share’ of higher costs in the Okanagan compared to those in the U.S., noted Pedersen.
Admitting the industry’s position is very complicated, he said the idea of the final report is to try and improve the situation. New technology exists and the most significant step the industry could take to get back on track would be to get the necessary financing to update and automate, he said.
His first recommendation is that the OTFC and the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association assess the benefits of making application to the Agri-Innovation fund to help with an infrastructure investment business case analysis.
The second is that the province make an early decision on whether it’s willing to purchase the surplus packinghouse properties.
Industry’s priorities for provincial government support are completion of the consolidation and re-capitalization of the packinghouses; improving fruit quality and yields by replanting up to 30 per cent of orchards over the next five years; government purchase of the surplus packing properties; and support for programs such as a renewed Tree Fruit Industry Development Fund; and revenue as mitigation from the Columbia River Treaty as part of its renewal process.
Pedersen’s third recommendation was for the province to consider support for an orchard renewal program, jointly with the federal government, while the fourth was renewal of the TFIDF program.
The fifth recommendation was a similar policy to the ‘wood first’ one with the forest industry, with promotion of the health benefits and value of eating fresh, nutritious, high-quality B.C. agricultural products.