FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — The Shadow Minister of Agriculture for BC United visited Fort St. John on Friday and, along with the Peace River North MLA, spoke with local farmers about their experiences during the drought.
This marks the third year MLA Dan Davies has welcomed and accompanied Ian Paton, BC United’s Shadow Minister of Agriculture and Food and the MLA for Delta South, in the North Peace to talk to farmers.
“Being my critical role was agriculture, and as a farmer myself, it’s really something I know a fair bit about,” said Paton.
“I’m able to talk one-on-one with farmers and ranchers, and I understand some of their plight, the fact that some are hanging on by a string. It’s not a fun business to be in.”
Some of the struggles for farmers and ranchers are due to the drought, and other issues include fuel, feed and fertilizer prices, predators killing livestock and finding labourers to work on their farms.
“It’s a desperate time in this area and all over northern B.C. from Vanderhoof to Prince George, Quesnel, William’s Lake, up here — there are drought conditions,” Paton said.
He said as much as he’d love to be the Minister of Agriculture, as the critic, he believes he has a better perspective of what’s going on.
“I think I’ve got way more presence in this province than the actual minister of agriculture,” Paton said.
“I’m able to speak to these people and understand their plight and changes they need made with government legislation and regulations about how we can help our farmers.”
One of the issues farmers face is a labour shortage, which according to MLA Davies, is due to the younger generations not wanting to go into farming or ranching.
“There’s nothing encouraging the younger generation to go into ranching or farming, even if they’re born into it. They see the struggle that their parents are having because agriculture is not a priority, it seems, by this government,” Davies said.
“This might be the nail in the coffin for some of these ranchers, not just up here but around B.C., because they may not have the revenue to continue after this.”
Paton said the product the farmers and ranchers are selling has gone up approximately 10 per cent in the last 15 years, but the equipment needed to run their farm has increased about 115 per cent.
“The costs of production are outweighing what farmers are getting paid for the product that they produce,” Paton said.
“Inflation is just killing the farming industry right now… It’s just mind-boggling how expensive farm equipment is.”
For example, a combine used to harvest crops is at least $890,000 brand new.
Farmers’ fields also aren’t yielding what they have in the past.
“Rather than getting three or four bales to the acre of these big, round bales, you’re getting maybe half a bale to the acre, and guys realize they don’t have enough feed to get their cattle through the fall and winter.”
Paton thinks a possible solution involves housing on farmland.
“If you’ve got two or three kids that want to stay and become farmers on the farm, like their mom and dad, they need to be able to build a house on that farm,” Paton said.
If a farm is located within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), typically only one primary residence is permitted.
According to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), on properties less than 40 hectares where a principal residence is 500 metres squared or less, one additional residence of 90 metres squared is permitted.
On a property over 40 hectares, where a primary residence is lawfully constructed, an additional residence of 186 metres squared is permitted. Still, it is also subject to local government bylaws or First Nation Government laws.
“What’s the big deal if you have two or three houses on a farm that’s 1,000 acres in size? We’ve got to have young people able to live on that farm and not commute from an apartment building 25 kilometres away from downtown Fort St. John,” Paton said.
“The land commission is very sticky about splitting off land from your existing farm.”
Davies said there needs to be some flexibility from the ALC so farms can stay in families.
Paton also thinks farmers and ranchers need risk management tools to reassure them the government will cover them if they run into trouble.
B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food is working with the federal government and two associations on programs to support farmers through AgriStability and Access to Feed.
The Access to Feed program was designed to match ranchers with a feed company, but the problem farmers have with the program is the cost to ship hay, likely at least out of province.
“Farmers need 1,000s of round bales to feed their cattle, and you can only get maybe 40 round bales on a truck… The whole thing is a bit hokey, I think,” Paton said.
He also said farmers are a bit confused about how AgriStability works.
Payments are only made if a producer’s current year margin falls more than 30 percent below their average margins.
He visited the auction barn in Dawson Creek and said the numbers of cattle for sale are “going through the roof” due to farmers unloading them while the price is still pretty good.
“If they sell a whole bunch of cattle, the auction yard is going to hand them a cheque for $250,000 for the cattle that are sold, so they’re just going to show they had a really good income the year before, so how are they going to get paid out for Agristability?” Paton asked.
“The system needs to be looked at and rewritten.”
Paton said the drought has been an issue for about a year now, as the Peace didn’t receive a lot of precipitation during the winter either.
“[Alberta and Saskatchewan governments] jumped on this way back in March and April and started searching for programs for their farmers; our government only starting talking about it [three] weeks ago,” Paton said.
He claims the funding is there, the ministry was given even more money after their initial budget from a surplus, but it was spent on “Mickey Mouse” programs instead of the farmers who need the government’s help during wildfires and drought.
“There’s $20 million to some projects for these terms like regenerative agriculture, food security, academics, agri-tech and innovation. I don’t think BC right now needs to be worrying about being a world leader in agri-tech and innovation,” Paton said.
“They’re cute little programs that might be okay in good times, but if there’s millions of extra dollars kicking around, it needs to go to these full-time conventional farmers that are struggling.”