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Sukhdeep Brar, a second-generation cherry, peach and apple grower, is learning another skill:  standing up for his tree fruit industry in the face of climate change. Photo courtesy of Jeff Bassett
Sukhdeep Brar, a second-generation cherry, peach and apple grower, is learning another skill: standing up for his tree fruit industry in the face of climate change. Photo courtesy of Jeff Bassett

What’s in 15 minutes of fame? The recent “Stronger Together” farmer rally in Osoyoos, British Columbia aims to find out.


Fruit farmers, reeling from four years of weather extremes, conceived the pro-agriculture May 28th event to create TV and print headlines in the Lower Mainland. A worthwhile result would be low-interest loans or cash injections by the provincial government. Although the event coincided with Premier David Eby’s cabinet retreat in the southern Okanagan, and he gave interviews on the event sidelines, there’s no immediate cash relief addressing the January 2024 deep freeze that decimated grapes and tree fruits.


“I’m very worried about the toll that the last few years is taking on farmers,” says Sukhdeep Brar, vice-president, BC Fruit Growers’ Association (BCFGA). “I am worried about mental health in an industry that doesn’t like to talk about mental health. Remember that 70 per cent of our members are Indo-Canadian. I am worried about the number of orchards going up for sale. I’m worried that there’s not a future in the Okanagan for my kids.”


The 38-year-old, second-generation farmer tends to 125 acres of cherries, peaches, apples and pears near Summerland, BC – also home, coincidentally, to an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research station and cherry breeding programs that have put BC on the global map. Brar points out that farmers have endured a heat dome of +40°C in 2021 and a deep freeze of -28°C in 2024. Fruit trees can only withstand so much adversity, before completely shutting down basic functions. While the provincial government’s announcement of a five-year, $70 million, enhanced replant program is appreciated, it’s not a realistic bridge to next year… or the year after.


“I’m not surprised that the BCFGA has rallied its members,” says Marcus Janzen, an Abbotsford, BC greenhouse grower and president of the Fruit and Vegetable Growers of Canada (FVGC). “Those members have a long history of political engagement. Their rally is an expression of desperate times and how hard pressed they are to see a way forward.”


Looking at the Canadian situation more broadly, Janzen adds, “Climate policy and food security need to be in lockstep. Everything pivots on that. Europe is starting to realize that. North America is not immune to those realities.”


In British Columbia, the Agricultural Land Reserve, a concept put into law in 1973, protects thousands of acres of farmland. But modern agricultural buildings, whether outbuildings, greenhouses, or produce packing facilities, no longer match consumers’ collective memory of red barns and cattle grazing in the distance. The disconnect between city and agrarian communities continues to widen, offering most urbanites little real understanding of what’s at stake for Canadian food security.


Janzen underscores the fact that Canada is one of the few democratic countries in the world that holds the potential to meaningfully increase its agricultural output. In relative terms, there’s a lot of arable land, fresh water and energy.  If appropriate pro-agriculture government policies were in place to harness these natural assets, there would be economic and societal benefits to all Canadians.


Against this backdrop, there are common threads between the “stand up” movement in Canada and European protests, with farmers demonstrating from Brussels to Barcelona. But reading below the bylines, the driving forces are very different. In the European Union’s capital, farmers have railed against the Green Deal’s objective of being climate-neutral by 2050. Spanish farmers, for their part, have demanded increased irrigation resources from the Department of Climate Action. And in Poland, farmers are protesting the unintended consequences of grains pouring over their borders from Ukraine because the Russian war has blocked Ukraine’s historical Middle Eastern and African markets.


It would be naive to believe that climate policy, in and of itself, is responsible for widespread uprising. What is common though is that farmers no longer give a hoot if their actions offend government. They are demanding respect for their heroic efforts to produce food, and to be fairly paid.


None of this surprises Tyler McCann, managing director, Canadian Agrifood Policy Institute (CAPI).  In a May 2024 survey of 550 leaders in the agriculture and food sector, the existing policy and regulatory environment is identified as the number one risk by farmers and the rest of the value chain.  


“These results speak to the frustration with governments, expectations not met and the lack of meaningful support,” says McCann. 


The demographics underscore the resentment. The World Bank estimates that only six million (15%) of Canada’s 41 million population lives in rural areas. Federally, the Liberals have not understood rural Canada, failing to connect the dots between climate policy and food security. On the other side of the aisle, Conservatives have taken the rural vote for granted. And the public service lags at developing the capacity to really understand rural Canada, the resource backbone of the country.


“Sustainability,” says McCann, “is understood very differently by urban and rural Canada. And in turn, the policy risks are amplified.” These are weighty statements given that CAPI is 65 per cent funded by federal government grants.


Several Canadian organizations, funded by a combination of government, private and philanthropy money, are tasked with raising agricultural awareness. Examples range from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity to the University of Guelph’s Arrell Institute to (Ontario’s) Farm & Food Care. Given the monumental job at hand, all are under-resourced to effectively tell the story. More often than not, Canadians are better acquainted with the back stories of their sports heroes than the origins of their takeout food.


Turning to the elections currently playing out in Europe, and those on the horizon in Canada and the U.S., McCann forecasts a couple of rough years ahead with geopolitical turmoil adding to the pressures farmers are facing.


“In the Canadian context, there’s little we can do to restore global stability,” he says. “What we can do is protect more value domestically and strengthen our value chains. We need to have our own house in order.”


This requires policies that are more cohesive in terms of soil health, water management, and land use, while taking into account the impacts of ongoing climate change. Sound like a Rubik’s cube? Sukdeep Brar thinks so.


“My Punjabi cousins come here from the Lower Mainland, and they don’t know what a peach looks like on the tree. This is education I need to explain with my own family – how it all fits together.”

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Submitted by Karen Davidson on 25 June 2024