NARAMATA — The new president of the BC Fruit Growers Association is a life-long farmer who believes he can influence a change in the province’s tree fruit industry.
“I’ve been involved in farming all my life,” says Peter Simonsen, an organic grower who was elected to head the 133-year-old association at its annual convention at the end of February. “I worked on a cousin’s ranch when I was a teenager and I liked it so much I went and got an agriculture degree at UBC.”
He tended a strawberry patch in Victoria while his wife obtained her teaching certificate, then grew vegetables in the Lower Mainland before moving to Naramata, where his wife’s family had farmed since 1910.
Simonsen grows apples, peaches and pears on 45 acres. His son Andrew is now a fifth-generation fruit grower and his daughter Annelise Simonsen and daughter-in-law Kaleigh Jorgensen run Creek and Gully Cidery, which uses some of the farm’s fruit.
“I’ve been involved in some aspect of the BCFGA since we started orcharding in 1987,” Simonsen says.
He was a convention delegate, eventually a board member and served as vice-president for three years.
“I took a year off when I lost the VP position,” he says. “When Pinder [Dhaliwal] was stepping down, he urged me to run for president. He phoned a lot of people and I phoned a lot of people and I won the vote on February 23.”
Simonsen has a strong mandate from growers. In an uncustomary move, BCFGA directors voted to reveal the results of the election; Simonsen received 121 votes, while current vice-president Jeet Dukhia received 63. Turnout was strong; more than 55% of the 332 association members cast votes.
Simonsen will count on that support as he steers the association through some very difficult times.
“We are into a five-year crisis in the apple industry,” he says. “We have been hit with multiple weather events and grower returns have been extremely poor for the last several years. There is a chronic labour shortage, apple acreage is at an all-time low and growers are planting cherries and grapes instead. We have board members who tell me if things don’t change they won’t be farming in three years.”
This wasn’t always the case, Simonsen recalls.
“During the 1990s, we were world leaders. We were getting a dollar a pound for Galas. Growers from other countries came to see our high-density planting systems and the Ambrosia apple that was developed here in BC was winning customers everywhere.”
The province can’t all be planted in grapes and cherries, Simonsen says.
“There are only so many sites that are suitable for soft fruit and grapes are a luxury item. We need the diversity that the apple industry provides,” he says.
An industry stabilization initiative led by the province recently completed a blueprint for the industry that contains 19 recommendations to resolve the issues plaguing the industry, but it has yet to commit resources to implementation.
Simonsen is positive there is a future for the industry.
“We have some of the top apple-growing conditions anywhere in North America,” he says. “But there needs to be a change in attitude. Farmers are feeling defeated and we don’t see any support from the government for our industry. To date there is no indication they will implement the report.”
Simonsen hopes that he can reset the sector’s relationship with government.
“There is not a lot of support for any agriculture within this government,” he says. “BC spends $17 per capita on agriculture, Ontario $40, Quebec $80 and Saskatchewan $400.”
BCFGA priorities for the industry, as chosen by members, include a better labour strategy and improvements to regulations governing the Agricultural Land Reserve and municipal rules for worker housing.
Seasonal labour is also an issue. Smaller orchards cannot employ a temporary farm worker full time, but current rules make it difficult to transfer workers between orchards. It is often difficult to get worker housing or summer camping approved by municipal jurisdictions.
A one-time support payment would go a long way to addressing the industry’s woes, and remains a key BCFGA demand of government.
“Washington growers have had a seven-cent a pound support payment over the last two years,” Simonsen says. “A support payment would help growers recover from the recent conditions. Many are wondering if they will have the money to spend on inputs for the coming year.”
Cash isn’t enough
But cash alone is not the answer. Innovation and technology, continuing the replant program and developing a solid extension program are also priorities.
“The cherry industry has benefited enormously from the world-class research that has gone onto the cherry breeding program. We need continual development of new apple varieties as well,” Simonsen says. “And renewing the replant program should have been settled over a cup of coffee. For every dollar the government puts in, the industry puts in 10.”
The apple marketing commission outlined in the industry stabilization document and being promoted by the New Tree Fruit Varieties Development Council makes a lot of sense, says Simonsen.
“Personally, I’m totally in favour of it. I think that all of us working together is the best strategy. I’ve heard there’s up to 38 packing houses now. That’s competition with the grower’s money,” he says. “We would like to see the packers embrace it, but in the end it will be a grower vote that decides.”
Simonsen believes the democratically elected BCFGA is the organization to continue to lead the industry.
“I am happy with our new, leaner business model. I think that we can continue with programs that support our member growers while also being a lobbying organization for the whole tree fruit industry,” he says. “We passed a solid set of resolutions at the AGM that will guide the board.”
Simonsen, who organized the Apple Farewell Tour at the Kelowna Farmers Market in October 2020, doesn’t think the industry is ready to say goodbye. But many growers can’t hold out much longer. Several have already left, with BCFGA member down a third from more than 500 a few years ago.
“We sold apples for12 cents a pound which was what on average our growers were receiving,” he says of the farewell tour event. “We need a change. I worry that it’s getting awfully late.”