By James Rose
Special to the Echo
In a recent press release, the BC Liberals claimed the province’s agrifood industry performed well for the past year, and is on track to reach $15 billion per year in revenue by 2020. For 2016, the government reported top line industry revenues of$13 billion, up six per cent year over year.
Agrifood, defined simply as the commercial production of store-ready food from farms, can add tremendous value forfarmers; enabling them to increase total revenue from the same amount of product (beef, berries, seafood, etc.) normally produced through additional processing.
Because of the Columbia Valley’s climate and land features, agriculture production is largely dominated by forage and beef production. Local organic produce, although very popular, still only accounts for a small amount the valley’s total farming output. And in recent years, perhaps the most newsworthy event in connection with agrifood, has been the forthcoming opening of a community abattoir.
The facility, to be operated by Grant Kelly of Grant’s Foods, will process meat products originating from Columbia Valley farms. Until the facility opens, the nearest abattoir is a relatively small one located in nearby Cranbrook. Consequently,through the years most of the beef produced in the valley has been shipped to Alberta for processing.
According to Kelly, although the government declined to provide any direct funding to help set up the abattoir, it has nonetheless been very supportive of the facility’s opening and subsequent operations.
“The provincial government has been outstanding to work with on getting the abattoir up and running,” said Kelly. “They’ve been more than helpful with the facility’s layout, design, and getting all the necessary approvals in place. The abattoir is key infrastructure for a healthy agrifood industry here in the valley and it will serve well to kick-start activity in the valley for more meat products to be made by commercial farms and hobbyists alike.”
For the government, the well-being of B.C.’s agrifood industry fits within the overarching umbrella that is the BC Jobs Plan— a cornerstone policy platform for the Liberals. The idea is that with more industry revenue comes more jobs. The latest job growth figures that Premier Clark’s government is choosing to disclose, mere months away from an election, indicatethat, yes, job creation in agrifood is happening across the province.
“Job growth (for the agrifood sector in 2016) was impressive throughout the province, with about 2,800 more employees inthe Vancouver Island-Coast Region than 2015, followed by an estimated 1,100 more in the Lower Mainland, 900 in theOkanagan, and 1,100 total in the Kootenays, Cariboo and North,” reads the press release.
“B.C. families are doing more than turning to our growing agrifoods sector for fresh and local meals — they are joining it for jobs, to invest in new businesses, and to begin or advance their careers,” commented Norm Letnick, B.C.’s Minister ofAgriculture. “With the B.C. government’s focus on continuing to build markets, invest in innovation and new technology,and support entrepreneurs, the opportunities for more jobs are on the way.”
Yet there are some local farmers who don’t see the area’s agrifood industry doing quite as well as the government claims,at least in Kootenay region. Local rancher Dave Zehnder (also a member of the Windermere District Farmers’ Institute)oversees the production of Zehnder Beef, a valley agrifood product adored by many. Zehnder has seen little to no jobgrowth in the industry, and aggregate revenues relatively flat across the Kootenay region and especially for the ColumbiaValley.
“If there has been an improvement in the industry’s underlying economics, it has more to do with market forces rather thanas a result of government policy,” said Zehnder. “Cattle prices increased sharply over the last few years as a result of severedroughts in the United States, and the droughts meant fewer cattle came to market down there.”
The resulting supply shortage shot Canadian beef prices up, and served as a boon to the bottom line of many cattleproducers. As Zehnder indicates, market forces (weather patterns in this case) have had a much greater role in the localagrifood industry’s economic performance than past promises made by provincial politicians.
“The government may well be able to say that ‘we had a plan to increase plans and jobs have increased.’ But can they saythat the new jobs are a direct result of their effort? I don’t know if they can,” said Zehnder. He also points out thegovernment not long ago incorporated fish farming into the department of agriculture and so those numbers are also nowincluded in agrifood statistics.
All told, the farming industry in the valley is small. According to a report done by the provincial government in 2011, grossfarm revenue for the entire industry in the Regional District of the East Kootenay amounted to roughly $15 million. Agrifoodrevenue to this day represents a fraction of that total.
The total land area of the Columbia Valley is 1,091,639 hectares with 73,083 hectares — close to seven per cent — zonedas Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Today, the valley is home to only ten full-time commercial farmers (excluding hobbyists)that are in operation. This small collective of farmers cultivate only four per cent of the available land within the valley’sALR.
Adding to the industry’s challenges is a constant pressure to reduce the size of the Columbia Valley’s ALR to make way formore recreational and residential zoning. The central point of contention between the opposing interests is the best andhighest use of the land — a row of condos overlooking a golf course may fetch a higher dollar than agriculture production,but whether that’s the best use of the land depends on a community’s long-term land use priorities.
As more and more people choose to eat locally-produced food products — indicating something other than a fad — itseems likely an upward trend for agrifood will persist. Yet despite a few positive things happening for valley agrifoodproduction, it appears the industry still faces an uphill climb before a meaningful economic impact can be accounted for.