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Local Economy

How BC’s Fruit Farming Industry Could Go for Gold Again

A lab-grown cherry changed the fruit game. With funding we could do it again, scientists and farmers say. Last of two.

Alex Nguyen 11 Jan

Alex Nguyen is a Vancouver-based journalist with interests related to affordability, equity and health. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Ricochet Media and the Ubyssey. Twitter: @alexnguyen2311.

Amritpal Singh acknowledges these are tough times for B.C.’s apple industry. But new varieties and a focus on quality could bring a brighter future, he says.

“Apples currently are going through a rough phase,” he said. “But with new varieties and with efforts towards producing better quality apples, having higher quality products reaching the consumers, things would change.”

Singh is a lead scientist at the federal government’s Summerland Research and Development Centre, heading the apple and cherry breeding program.

Research at the sprawling centre run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has already transformed the province’s cherry industry.

In the 1990s, sweet cherries were a fledgling crop in B.C. with only $500,000 in annual sales. There weren’t many varieties in the province, and B.C. was locked in competition with Washington state, the biggest producer of sweet cherries in North America. And it was losing the battle.

But when the research centre, which has now bred 80 per cent of the sweet cherry varieties being grown around the world, released the Staccato variety for commercial planting in the 2000s, it changed the game for the province.

With a deeply red skin and sweet taste, Staccato cherries are not ripe for picking until August — much later than the harvest season for popular varieties from Washington state. This opened up a whole new market for B.C.’s sweet cherries and transformed them into a multimillion-dollar industry. Today, almost all of Canada’s sweet cherries are grown in the Okanagan.

But the transformation was no overnight success story. Staccato’s development took a long time, with the variety first being bred in 1982.

Singh says breeding apples to create new or improved varieties is just as time intensive. Apple trees begin bearing fruit about five years after being planted. It could take another 15 to 20 years to cultivate, observe and test tens of thousands of crossbreeding experiments to find new and improved varieties.

The average farmer is getting older and a lot of them have no succession plan. As the long race to find that next popular apple variety goes on, growers and experts are calling on the provincial government to provide more support to growers to bridge the gap.

‘A game of numbers’

Breeding apples in search of the next popular variety can sometimes feel like playing a slot machine in search of a jackpot.

Singh said the research centre came really close to the jackpot in 2003 when it released the Aurora Golden Gala. The yellow-skinned variety ticks almost every criteria: crispy, juicy, tasty. But it flopped, because the apples bruise easily — a big negative for grocery stores.

The search continues. Singh said the Summerland Research and Development Centre program has a selection of 30,000 unique apple varieties. But 99 per cent of them won’t make it past an initial three-year series of visual and taste tests and advance to a second stage of evaluation. Singh and his team will eat more than 50 apples a day during evaluation season in the fall.

And because the breeding program’s apples would eventually have to compete with current varieties, Singh often takes his taste tests to grocery stores.

“Whenever there is a new variety, I like to try it. Instead of buying a bag of one variety, I often buy a few fruits of many different varieties and I keep on evaluating each of their characteristics. People often look at me like, ‘Why is he taking five different bags of apples and he has only two or three fruits each?’”

Singh’s interest in tree fruit breeding started early. He grew up on an agriculture university’s research farm in India, where he watched experiments on the farm with fascination.

This sparked a lifelong interest in plant breeding, eventually leading him to pursue a doctoral degree in tree fruit breeding at the University of Guelph when he immigrated to Canada with his wife in 2012. Eventually, an opening for his current role brought him to the Summerland centre in 2017.

Among the varieties that Singh has been handling and testing these days — bred largely in the 2000s — one looks particularly promising. He says the apple caught his attention with its “amazing texture and flavour,” even surpassing popular apples like the Ambrosia on those metrics.

This variety, known at the centre as SPA1080, could be named and released to growers for commercial planting within the next two to three years, Singh said.

“Breeding is a game of numbers: the more you can evaluate, the more population size that you have and the faster you can do it, the higher the chances of your success,” he said.

‘Modest mandate’

In the meantime, Singh noted that growers could up their return by switching from a lower value variety like the Red Delicious — it’s old and doesn’t taste as good as its name — to a newer, higher-value variety like the Ambrosia.

But he acknowledged this process is not cheap. The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture does provide farmers up to $7,625 per acre switched to higher-value varieties, which the government says has allowed more than a million trees to be planted since 2017.

But this still leaves a substantial risk for growers, because funding is far short of the full cost of around $30,000 per acre. And with apple trees needing years before they bear fruit, growers have to invest even more money nurturing them.

“You’re not making money when you’re replanting for the next three or four years,” Singh said.

851px version of AmritpalSingh.jpg
Dr. Amritpal Singh is optimistic that BC’s fruit farming industry can be revitalized. But the work won’t stop there. Photo: Chris Pagliochini, AAFC.

Apple growers said more support is needed. BC Fruit Growers’ Association vice-president Peter Simonsen said it was disappointing to see little in Agriculture Minister Lana Popham’s mandate letter about ways to help producers deal with a consolidated retail market, heightened competition and lagging protections for income loss. 

It’s “a modest mandate in a challenging time,” Simonsen said.

He acknowledged the value of programs like Grow BC, Feed BC and Buy BC, which aim to expand local food production, processing and purchasing. But he said that small growers may benefit more than those running medium- and large-scale family farms.

In an interview with The Tyee, Popham acknowledged the competition facing B.C. apple growers, especially as they are not subsidized by the province.

Besides the replant program, which was established in 1991, Popham said the province is working with the industry to address the challenges. She noted that they are looking for ways to create more value-added products and maintaining a $5-million fund that helps tree fruit growers “increase efficiency, sales and productivity levels.” About $3.3 million of the funding is still available.

She added that many programs like Grow BC, Feed BC and Buy BC are recent, having been introduced when the NDP came to power in 2017, and will continue to grow.

“The programs are a little bit like running a farm,” she said. “You establish the programs, and we continue to feed those programs and eventually you will see their success.”

A fierce debate about agri-tech and the ALR

Popham’s mandate letter also discussed expanding the agricultural technology sector as a way to boost the industry’s efficiency. In the province, there are more than 150 agri-tech companies, with some providing new waste technologies, or drones that could monitor crop health, for example.

In July 2019, B.C. created a three-member BC Food Security Task Force to determine how to harness agri-tech to make food production more efficient and sustainable. In January 2020, the task force delivered its recommendations, including adopting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, establishing an agricultural research centre and converting a portion of land within the Agricultural Land Reserve into agri-industrial zones.

But the task force’s recommendations have sparked debate.

A report by Kwantlen Polytechnic University researchers acknowledged technology’s role in building a sustainable food system but warned against “a singular focus and dependence on technological remedy.”

It also cautions that an agri-tech sector that needs heavy investment could benefit corporations rather than family-owned farms.

Lenore Newman, a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley and a member of the provincial task force, said there have also been positive responses.

“I think local production doesn’t always mean no tech,” Newman added. “Traditional agriculture also can be right next door to some really high-tech agriculture that keeps us local during those off seasons.”

The most heated discussion, however, has been creating agri-industrial zones in the Agricultural Land Reserve. The program to protect agricultural land was introduced in 1973 by Dave Barrett’s NDP government. It aimed to maintain about five per cent of arable land — around 4.6 million hectares — for food production.

According to Harold Steves, a longtime Richmond councillor and former NDP MLA who helped create the ALR, food security was a key motivation for protecting farmland.

But over the years that dream of long-term food security has been threatened as speculation drove up prices and made land increasingly inaccessible for many farmers.

“We’ve got the best climate in Canada for growing vegetables, and yet our biggest crop is mega-mansions,” Steves quipped.

So when the task force recommended converting 0.25 per cent of lower value ALR land into agri-industrial zones, there was fierce resistance. In a Metro Vancouver regional planning committee meeting that discussed the report, Steves warned against being fooled by the initial small scale of the project. “Once you start along this road, you simply can’t stop it,” he said.

This debate is on Popham’s radar. On June 8, she tweeted that the government would “look at the land-use opportunities in the province as a whole” for agri-tech development, rather than just at the ALR land.

“We have no intention of supporting agri-tech that takes away the capacity of food being grown on the ALR. If agri-tech companies can find a place to exist and be complementary to the ALR, I think that’s the best-case scenario,” Popham told The Tyee.

Protecting agricultural land isn’t enough

But preserving farmland through the ALR is only half the battle to saving B.C. agriculture. The other half is supporting farmers, experts say.

Popham’s ministry has the highest agricultural budget in the province’s history, but B.C. is still one of Canada's lowest spenders on agriculture based on provincial GDP.

“It’s not good enough to protect agricultural land, and expect agriculture to thrive, when the economic environment is not conducive to agricultural viability,” said Kent Mullinix, director of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems and one of the researchers who criticized the task force’s agri-tech recommendations.

Steves recalls accompanying efforts to support farmers when the ALR was introduced. The Farm Income Assurance Program allowed farmers to pay a small portion of their incomes into a fund during good years, and the government helped cover their costs when there was a market downturn.

But in the late 1970s, with the conservative Social Credit Party’s arrival, the government capped the program’s coverage. By the 1980s, the program was gone.

Since then there have been other programs that help manage farmers’ business risks, particularly at the federal level. But these safety nets have also seen cuts.

Introduced in 2007, AgriStability — a federal program that is administered by the provincial government in B.C. — protects producers who have lost income. Under the old rules, the support would kick in if a producer’s current income margin — allowable income less allowable expenses — dropped below 85 per cent of historic levels. But in 2013, the program was changed, and payments required income margin to fall below 70 per cent.

The government also introduced the reference margin limit. This built-in calculation effectively made it harder for growers to receive pay and reduced the amount of pay they could receive, said Stefan Larrass, chair of the Canadian Horticultural Council’s business risk management committee.

Farmers, including apple growers, have long called for a return to 85-per-cent coverage and the removal of the reference margin limit.

“Even before COVID-19, AgriStability was the number one area that growers believed the government could improve its support,” said Larrass. “And when COVID-19 struck, AgriStability is still the program that growers believe could be used to improve support.”

The push has produced some results recently. Following a meeting of Canada’s agriculture ministers on Nov. 27, federal minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced that Ottawa will be looking at removing the reference margin limit.

The federal government is also looking at increasing the program's compensation rate from 70 per cent to 80 per cent.

In B.C., both of these changes were already made last spring.

“We didn’t feel that our farmers could wait any longer,” said Popham.

Changes to the federal program would mean more funding for the province to support growers. But prospects of restoring the 85-per-cent threshold seem unlikely for now.

Popham said B.C. prioritized changing the compensation rate because it helps “many more farms and many different sizes.”

In a press release, Canadian Horticultural Council executive director Rebecca Lee said this change is still needed.

“Without the additional measures we are requesting, many growers will continue to face difficult decisions as to whether or not they can take on the risks associated with producing fruits and vegetables — not just in this exceptionally challenging year but every season, as risks associated with weather, pests and market instability continue to rise.”

Sustainable farming in the future

Both Newman and Mullinix — as well as most other experts and growers The Tyee interviewed — also agree on the need to expand B.C.’s lagging public agricultural research.

As part of the task force, Newman visited the Netherlands to study its Golden Triangle model where industries, universities and government work together. The triangle is credited with helping the small country become the world’s second largest food exporter.

Looking at Canada, she compared this model to the collaboration between Ontario and the University of Guelph.

“The best example we have in Canada is the agreement between the provincial government and the University of Guelph where if there’s research the industry needs, Guelph is funded to do it. They often bill themselves as Canada’s food university, and they are,” she said.

“In B.C., we don’t have that kind of capacity... everyone does some good work, but there are only a few of us.”

It’s also about preparing for the future. For Singh, striking gold with a new winning variety doesn’t mean that the work with the apple industry will stop.

“There’s always a lot of scope for improvement,” he said. “Maybe 10 years from now, once all of these new ideas and methods are implemented, we would be a level above. And then maybe I’ll be thinking of something different, more creative, more complex.”

And looking more broadly, Mullinix stressed the need to prepare future generations for sustainable farming.

“Farming appropriately for the 21st century, which is crop production that nurtures Mother Earth, is going to require highly trained farmers,” Mullinix said.

“People think farming is easy. It’s not. It takes a high level of knowledge and skill — and as we move to a sustainable farming system, that is going to be increased.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy, Food

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