New plan for Okanagan tree fruits takes aim at backyard farmers
A new plan to “stabilize” the tree fruit industry could include a new taxing regime for wealthy homeowners who buy up agricultural land and get tax breaks.
The 19 recommendations in the “Blueprint for B.C.’s Tree Fruit Industry” by the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association call for things like a new governance structure, a relook at labour and marketing of new products.
But recommendation 17 calls on the government to “re-establish a method to distinguish persons who are actively farming and producing agricultural products from persons who own land which is generally used for non-agriculture purposes.”
Recommendation 18 goes on to say government should work with the Agricultural Land Commission to ensure agricultural production remains the primary use of land in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The current system allows many property owners to get tax breaks on their land if they sell a minimum of $2,500 in products, meaning many build huge houses and have a minimal amount of land that is farmed.
“If they’re meeting the $2,500, they’re probably getting a lot of benefits under the agriculture umbrella,” Bhupinder Dhaliwal, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, told iNFOnews.ca. “Is that a bona fide farmer? We’re saying, wait a minute, a real farmer is one who’s going through harvesting, planting, thinning and he’s got labour and he’s participating in the insurance programs – that’s a real farmer.
“We’re saying, you need to look at that and those people who are needing a little bit more space to have a bigger back garden, they need to be taxed accordingly.”
He also wants government to change the $2,500 minimum income from farming because it hasn’t changed in 20 to 30 years. But, that has to be done carefully because there are some legitimate small farmers, Dhaliwal said.
Taxes collected from the hobby farmers could help real farmers struggling through tough times with low prices and things like last summer’s drought.
The Fruit Growers’ Association has asked for government support over the past three or four years, particularly in the apple sector where acreage has been shrinking and prices are low, Dhaliwal said.
The government decided to look at the tree fruit industry as a whole, including grapes.
The report’s number one recommendation is that a new industry agency be created to lead the sector. It goes on to suggest the Fruit Growers’ Association focus on apples only and modernize it’s governance structure.
Right now, there are separate organizations for things like tree fruits, cherries and grapes. Packing, processing and marketing also need to be included in the overall agency.
On the labour side, the report calls on the government to create an agricultural labour strategy. The industry was hit hard by COVID because it relies heavily on seasonal labour from countries like Mexico and Jamaica but also had trouble getting labourers who normally come from Quebec.
There’s also no pathway to citizenship under the Temporary Foreign Workers program, unlike in the past where successive waves of workers from various countries were able to become citizens and buy their own farms.
One of the more immediate improvements would be for the Ministry of Agriculture to put field workers in the Okanagan as was the case in the past, Dhaliwal said.
Things like recommendations to develop and market new varieties and new processed products will take longer.
There are also recommendations about reviewing the benefits of the Sterile Insect Release program, beefing up irrigation systems and improving financial support programs.
The plan was developed by an advisory group of industry stakeholders who are now charged with prioritizing and implementing the recommendations.
For his part, Dhaliwal will be meeting with his board next week to discuss the recommendations.
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