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Inside View: Viewing industry challenges upside down or inside out?

April 30, 2008  By Gary Jones

A couple of months ago, I enjoyed playing host to a
long-standing ex-colleague from the U.K. (he hates being called an old

A couple of months ago, I enjoyed playing host to a long-standing ex-colleague from the U.K. (he hates being called an old boss!). While he was here delivering several industry seminars, I took the opportunity to tour him around the great and good of the B.C. greenhouse industry (no offence meant if we didn’t get to see you). Between visits, I quietly caught up on the state of the industry back in Blighty. He reported that the main issues facing the industry at the moment are:

  • Human resources: difficulty in finding workers and experienced growers, so having to hire (and provide accommodation for) eastern European workers.
  • Static prices for produce (at best!).
  • Rising production costs (particularly energy, food safety, customer quality assurance, boiler emissions controls).
  • Imported produce extending the season (= more competition).
  • Increasing consolidation of businesses (fewer but much larger).
  • More, and increasing, bureaucracy.
  • Ways to squeak out higher yield.
  • New (= more!) pests and diseases and subsequent crop protection challenges.

No change there, then. But he also added a few (relatively) new ones – carbon tax, incoming taxation based on boiler capacity, food miles, and experienced growers leaving the industry altogether.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I was privileged to attend the AGM of one of the industry associations. During the president’s address, he reviewed the issues faced by growers here. Pretty much “ditto” the same list as above (save substitute “off-shore” for “eastern European”). Even the “new” issues are similar. For example, a new provincial carbon tax in B.C. is estimated to cost greenhouse operators $2 million this year, rising to $6.5 million by 2012.

Sandwiched between these two events, I attended the AGM of the Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC). One of the seminar topics was “Starting Your Own Organic Farm.” The really interesting point for me was not the topic itself, although it obviously was interesting as I was there in the first place, but the audience. About 55 people attended that specific workshop. In itself, that was impressive. But of these, I estimate that half (more than 25, at least) were young people! OK, so young is relative, so let’s suggest under 30. Hear me – young people actually wanting to come into the growing industry! Working in horticultural education, I notice these things.

A week later, I also attended the AGM of one of the organic certification bodies. Another outgoing president offered his report on the year past, another list of issues. I was already halfway through writing the list before the speaker even spoke. Starting with “difficulty finding workers,” I was off. But I was not ready for how this was presented. “We need more farmers – there are likely another seven farmers’ markets opening in the area this summer.” Very positive news, indeed.

To round off an already hectic month, with funding from the “Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC,” I organized a series of three public seminars in Langley. Sixty people came to the first session on urban planning for agriculture and food production in a post peak-oil society. There was much “spirited discussion” after the presentation from Richard Balfour, a Vancouver architect. Over 120 people came to the second event, the movie The Future of Food. Clearly, the public is very interested in agriculture and food.

It seems to me that the way we produce our food is changing. That’s a bold statement, but I believe there is a groundswell of public opinion. I also think it is changing faster than many of us may realize. It was immensely encouraging to see young people value food production as an honourable way to earn a living and want to get involved. It is interesting to see farmers’ markets meeting a need with the public to get in touch with how their food is produced. It is always revealing to see the level of knowledge that many of the public have on issues around food and society.

Clearly there are many challenges ahead. But there are also many opportunities, sometimes from directions that we least expect.

Gary Jones is chair of production horticulture at Kwantlen University
and serves on several industry committees. He can be contacted at .

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