Fruit industry thriving... but

The outgoing president of the BC Fruit Growers Association painted a picture of an industry that has bounced back after some very dark days.

Fred Steele, stepping down after four years at the helm, told the 129th BCFGA convention in Kelowna Friday, painted a picture of hope and prosperity in his final address to the membership.

"Four years ago, we faced an uncertain future. The doors to government were closed, and many consumers believed we were going to become a cottage industry. We needed to focus on some positive action," said Steele.

"Contrast that with today. Today things are different. Today, acreages are increasing, and hay fields are being replaced with tree fruits. Our economic contribution to the valley has increased by a quarter of a billion dollars over the last few years."

Steele said growers are starting to see their full potential by implementing new ideas and new technologies.

He said the industry has taken positive action and, after 32 years, the industry is growing, stating the independent spirit of the farmer has been one of its greatest successes.

"It's been growing for the past three years, going on four, and we want to keep it moving. Today, we can compete with anyone in the world, and I suggest we confront the world and not each other.

"Four years ago we promised to tell our story...and, we did just that. We spoke of hope and promise, we spoke of change. We changed the narrative, we gained our confidence back, we regained our self respect, governments are willing to listen and the public has confidence in us."

He believes orchardists in the valley are determined to reclaim the title of "best fruit growers in the world."

"We're just getting started," he said.

"We are replanting and expanding the apple industry, we are engaging in agri-tourism, we are expanding our vision of diversification and value added opportunities."

While the industry is seeing unprecedented growth, it's not without its challenges.

Growers on the convention floor talked about the pitfalls of a rising minimum wage on the tree fruit industry.

A resolution asked the province to offset the higher wage by increasing funding for agricultural programs, introducing tax credits in relation to the employment of low-skill workers and reducing regulatory costs.

"We talk about the minimum wage being $15, but in reality, growers are even higher than that already," said apple grower Amarjit Lalli, who pointed to subsidizing housing and paying airfare and other costs to bring in foreign workers.

"We'd love to hire local people, but the reality is they are not coming forward. We have to go through this process of hiring foreign workers."

He added growers do not have the ability to pass on increased costs because it is the retail chain that dictates what they are willing to pay growers.

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