B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick has committed to a pair of key changes to his government’s fruit tree replant program to help ease growers’ transitions to higher-value crops.
During his address Saturday in Penticton at the annual meeting of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, Letnick announced he will remove the like-to-like requirement on producers that compels them to replant orchards with the same type of fruit.
“Just like crops need to change, sometimes replant programs need to change,” Letnick said.
“So should apple growers like to diversify their orchards by replanting with cherries, they will be able to apply for the program. And so will other growers interested in replanting with different types of fruit trees.”
That should help build a “stronger, more sustainable tree fruit sector,” he added.
The current $2-million replant program was announced in May and, like others, lasts only as long as the money does, which creates uncertainty and has prompted fruit growers to call for the establishment of a permanent version.
Letnick, the MLA for Kelowna-Mission, pledged to work on that too.
“You have my commitment… to work as your minister of agriculture to make this a reality,” he said.
“I’ll be working to come up with a regular, annual, sustainable, bankable, reliable replant program so we don’t have to go to the finance minister every year for year-end dollars.”
Letnick said ministry staff will begin working with the BCFGA next month to develop guidelines to support both changes. He confirmed after his speech, however, that there is no funding in place for a permanent replant program.
Nonetheless, BCFGA acting president Jeet Dukhia said he was “very pleased” and “growers are very happy” with the minister’s announcement.
Dukhia expects the current replant program will hand out about $900,000 this year and the balance the following year. He said a $1.5-million annual commitment to a permanent plan would be ideal.
At that level of funding, the industry “will be pretty competitive” in five years, Dukhia said, adding old orchards with 600 trees per acre could be replanted with newer varieties at a density of 3,000 trees per acre.
He also noted that although some growers are having trouble getting their hands on new trees to plant, a permanent program would provide nurseries with the assurance they need to ensure a stable supply.
Dukhia added that even with government assistance, replanting still costs growers plenty.
“A grower spends $30,000 to replant an acre. Out of $30,000, he’s getting a $7,000 grant. So you have to appreciate the grower’s spending the majority of the money from his pocket.”
Following his speech, Letnick responded to a handful of growers’ comments, the first of which noted that dealing with four different agriculture ministers in four years has not been helpful to the industry.
Letnick, who was appointed in September 2012, explained the changes were prompted by the 2009 election, followed by rise of Premier Christy Clark, and now the B.C. Liberals’ preparations for this spring’s election.
“My personal goal is to be here a year from now in the same job, talking to you as the current minister for agriculture,” Letnick said.
The BCFGA annual meeting concludes this afternoon with the election of a new president. Dukhia, a Vernon-area grower, is up against Kelowna orchardist Fred Steele.
Dukhia became the acting president in December, following the sudden resignation of Kirpal Boprai.