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‘We need to fight’: Farmers rally in Okanagan as BC NDP gather for retreat

The agricultural industry has faced years of climate disasters that have left them stretched thin

Several hundred Okanagan farmers united at Gyro Park in Osoyoos on Tuesday, to rally support for B.C.’s agriculture industry, while just metres away the BC NDP caucus was gathering for a retreat.

The Stronger Together rally was organized by the BC Fruit Growers Association (BCFGA), supported by other organizations such as the BC Grape Growers Association, to drive home the impacts that have left the agriculture industry reeling.

Multiple years of drought and wildfire, combined with cold snaps and extreme heat, have taxed farmers’ resources to the point that for some, it’s not a question of when their situation will improve, but if.

“How long can we say there’s always next year? It used to be one bad year in every five to 10. Now, it’s been four climate disaster years in a row and 2020 was the COVID disaster,” said BCFGA vice-president Sukhdeep Brar to the crowd of farmers and supporters.

“I would rather sell a crop than collect insurance. Insurance is supposed to protect us in bad years, but the system wasn’t designed for multiple bad years in a row.”

The number of local staples, that either won’t produce fruit at all or only in greatly reduced amounts, was emphasized at the rally to illustrate the direct impact climate disasters have had in recent years.

Plants such as grapes, which experienced up to 99 per cent crop loss, ‘devastating’ harvest of cherries, nectarines, peaches and other soft fruits, were all severely impacted over the last several years.

Those losses are leaving some farmers without any product to sell.

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Further complicating the situation is how market prices have become disconnected from what farmers are getting paid, said Brar.

“Yes, the shoppers who bought the apples paid $3/lb, but the farmer who grew them got 10 per cent less than they would have 39 years ago,” said Brar.

BCFGA president Peter Simonson also called on grocery stores to step up, urging for them to finally sign onto the retail code of conduct, or for the federal government to force them to sign it. He also echoed the point that sticker prices have not led to an equal increase for farmers.

“Prices at retail are higher than ever. Farm returns are the same or less,” said Simonson.

Even beyond the immediate financial impact, which has seen orchards and vineyards up for sale across the Okanagan, there is an emotional and mental toll on the region’s farmers. Some of the farmers are concerned about whether there would be a future for their families in the industry, while others wonder where new generations of farmers might come from.

Members of the NDP caucus, including Premier David Eby and Boundary-Similkameen MLA Roly Russell, attended the rally as did BC United MLA Dan Ashton. The politicians were asked to not address the rally to keep the event non-partisan.

Eby spoke briefly to media about some of the concerns that he had heard first hand from farmers.

”Without farmers, we don’t have food, without food, we’re in real trouble,” said Eby.

Through the rally, the BCFGA repeated the importance of standing together and getting support from not just the government but consumers too.

“We’re still farmers. We’re not going anywhere. We need to fight. We need to stand together,” said Brar. “I’m not ready to give up and I don’t think anyone here is ready to give up. None of the farmers are ready to give up.”

Ways of support from the average consumer laid out included simply buying local, whether that is directly from the farmer or by making sure that truly local food is stocked at the local store, by holding retailers accountable and by putting pressure on MPs and MLAs to get government support.

READ MORE: BC fruit growers to look for support at Osoyoos rally