SUMMERLAND, B.C. — Success in agriculture for the British Columbia NDP hinges largely on convincing the province’s residents to buy local.
“We need to help people understand that choosing fruits and vegetables that are grown at home keep our farmers on the land,” said Colleen Ross, NDP candidate for the May 9 provincial election in the Boundary Similkameen riding in south-central B.C.
Ross, who operates a small farm in Grand Forks, said that’s why the party emphasizes its plan to develop what it calls an enhanced Buy BC program. In addition to encouraging local consumers to buy B.C. food products, it would also market B.C. food products through the rest of Canada and abroad, she said.
Buy B.C. is just one leg of an initiative the party calls Grow B.C., Feed B.C., Buy B.C.
There are few details on the process or the funding needed to operate the initiatives, but the party’s agricultural platform contains other aspects in addition to promoting B.C. products.
Those include revitalizing the Agriculture Land Reserve, improving young farmers’ access to land, ensuring healthy bee populations and supporting fruit and nut growers and processors.
As well, the platform touches on a plan to help hospitals and care facilities increase their use of B.C. grown and processed food and said the party would work to increase the use of B.C. food products in all government facilities.
Ross acknowledged that international trade deals such as the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement with the European Union can make government-imposed preferential buying policies controversial.
“By moving into these trade agreements, it actually makes it very difficult for institutions to preferentially purchase from local producers or hire local companies, and we need to do something about it. We need to push back on those trade agreements.”
Ross said other policies related to start-up and development grants for new businesses would also be available to farmers.
“It’s a highly technical, professional career being a farmer. They are not barred to access for the start-up grants.”
Development of a B.C. food innovation centre is another key part of the NDP’s agricultural plan.
The party said it plans to iron out details after conversations with growers, processors, colleges and universities with the idea that the centre would “link food producers with new technology and expand their access for world markets.”
Despite statements from B.C. Liberal Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick that the provincial agricultural economy is thriving with $13 billion in agri-food receipts in 2015 and record profits of $440 million, Ross sees a less rosy picture.
She said a lot of small- to medium-sized farmers are struggling.
“These numbers do not reflect farm income. That money is not going back into the pocket of farmers. That goes back into big corporations.”
The NDP wants to offer incentives to help farmers be more creative in growing, marketing and processing. She said many young farmers understand the need to brand themselves and their farms and serve particular niches to gain price premiums, such as certified organic or pesticide free.
Ross also rued the loss of on-farm processing and said incentives could help restore some of that.
For example, her area around Grand Forks once had a jam factory that no longer exists.
“Now the valley just has houses and we’re grazing deer. People aren’t really making much in agriculture in Grand Forks any more and it’s one of the largest, sunniest valleys in the province.”
The NDP has also promised to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, which has some farmers and orchardists worried. Orchard operators in particular might feel the effects because they routinely hire large numbers of unskilled fruit pickers and some fear they couldn’t afford to pay that wage.
Ross said the plan is to phase in the minimum wage increase to make the transition easier.
The NDP plan for climate change would also shield farmers by offering rebates to people with low incomes, she said.
The provincial carbon tax is $30 per tonne, but farmers are currently exempt and greenhouse operators are 80 percent exempt after complaints from farmers that the tax put them at a competitive disadvantage to farmers in other provinces and internationally.
The NDP plans to increase the carbon tax in line with the federal carbon pricing mandate. It plans to use revenue from the tax for rebates to low income residents and invest in ways to lower the province’s carbon footprint.
Ross said the party would also stop the controversial Site C hydro dam construction in the Peace River region, which is removing fertile land out of productive use.
“Flooding agriculture land for the dam is not respectful of food production,” she said. “For the Liberals to say that they respect farmers and food production and then they push farmers who are resistant to moving out of the Peace River to flood their land, it just doesn’t make sense to us.”
Terry Fries is a freelance writer based in Summerland, B.C.