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Guide Canada: Should this B.C. study become a template for other provinces, showing that farming paves the way for better days to come for the entire economy?

British Columbia’s 17,528 farms generated an estimated $3.8 billion in farm cash receipts in 2019.

It’s tempting to talk about Canada’s pandemic recovery, but is it premature? Cases of COVID-19 keep making headlines, and the “new normal” Canadians so desperately want still seems remote and uncertain. 

One thing is absolutely clear, though. Agriculture and the agri-food sector have gotten back to to near normal operations, and they did so with astonishing speed after some early disruptions. 

Farming stands out in marked contrast to the chaos and downturn that hit other industries from manufacturing and hospitality to the transportation sector. 

Now it turns out British Columbia is a great case study.

A 2020 B.C. study shows agriculture is a stabilizing industry and a core component of the provincial economy, and it will continue to play a huge role as the province digs out from its pandemic-induced economic downturn. 

The B.C. Agriculture Council (BCAC) and Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C. (IAF) had commissioned the study from MNP LLP to help develop a new vision for the sector.

To complete the report MNP hit the books, looking at GDP, tax revenues and employment, as well as provincial and local government priorities that agriculture can address, and the sector’s responsiveness to key public issues such as food security and economic recovery. 

For farmers, says BCAC president Stan Vander Waal, the upshot is a better understanding of their contribution to the economy.

The release of Study of the British Columbia Agriculture Sector, at the height of COVID’s devastating economic downturn, amplified the value of agriculture in both good times and bad. COVID, Vander Waal says, “really put the spotlight on this report and the reality of what agriculture can be… and is.”

The impact of COVID-19 makes it clear, Stan Vander Waal says. Farming is good for the whole economy. photo: Supplied

With over 200 commodities, B.C. has one of the most diverse agricultural sectors in the country. It is Canada’s largest fruit-producing region, and ranks second for greenhouse vegetable production, and third for field-grown vegetables. It also has the second-largest floriculture and nursery industry, and the third-largest share of national receipts in supply-managed products. 

The province’s 17,528 farms generated an estimated $3.8 billion in farm cash receipts in 2019. But that’s just the beginning. Study of the British Columbia Agriculture Sector pegs its overall contribution to the B.C. economy that year at $8.5 billion. It supported 35,100 direct jobs and ag businesses also paid $950 million in taxes and made a net contribution of $3.9 billion to the provincial gross domestic product. 

The report also compares B.C.’s ag sector with other important west coast industries, showing that jobs in agriculture in 2019 were roughly equal to those created by construction of 18,000 new homes, equal to approximately 40 per cent of new home starts in B.C. It also points out that the number of jobs generated by the province’s farm and agri-processing sectors are three to four times higher than those within the provincial mining industry. 

The report also has a range of projected economic impacts through to 2030 in terms of real GDP and employment. Real GDP was projected to grow by up to 20 per cent while the change in direct employment was projected to grow by up to 15 per cent — if capacity constraints do not have a significant impact on production. 

B.C. has many enviable advantages, including its long and highly favourable growing season and access to international markets, but its lack of labour and limited arable land are two key weaknesses identified in the report. 

Although up to 15 per cent of B.C. land is suitable for farming, less than five per cent is considered suitable for growing crops and a scant one per cent is Class 1 farmland, which is always under pressure despite the provincial agricultural land reserve. 

And with many types of crops requiring hand harvesting the sector also struggles with unfulfilled labour needs and difficulties trying to attract and retain the skills it needs. 

The report cites the need to foster regional immigration, place new value on farming trades, and contribute to rural regions so more people will live where agricultural jobs are located. 

It also notes the sector is already contributing to employment and training opportunities across every region in the province.

Vander Waal says what really stands out from this report is that ag proved its mettle during this past year of extreme job losses and shuttered businesses.

Employment levels in agriculture fell by approximately two per cent in the second quarter of 2020, significantly less than the 14 per cent drop in overall provincial employment, the report notes. B.C.’s other sectors such as accommodation and foodservices were very hard hit, making the province the second-most affected labour market in Canada last year. 

The ag sector showed further capacity to lessen COVID-19’s negative effects as farmers carried on business as usual and continued to support local suppliers and service providers such as feed stores and repair shops, as well as other retail and industries in rural B.C. 

“(Agriculture) can play a major role in helping the province weather and recover from the pandemic-induced economic downturn due to both its inherent recession-resilience and its important role in fostering economic development in rural communities,” the report says. 

The report looks well beyond economic impact, examining how agriculture is already contributing to public priorities such as food security, employment and training, and environmental sustainability. 

With nearly 3,000 food processing companies producing over $10 billion in annual sales, B.C. is a leader in food processing, and the ag sector has led in food security, such as with school programs delivering locally grown fruit and vegetables to children. 

With disruptions in food-supply chains due to COVID-19, the B.C. government has also connected businesses and food producers with a network of local social service agencies to recover nutritious foods and deliver them to the hungry.

As all levels of government shift their focus from a COVID-19 emergency response to the task of supporting long-term economic recovery, a more in-depth look into sustainable local food systems could be among those priorities, the report says. Increasing awareness of buying local and having proper support in place for local food producers will not only provide employment opportunities but also help the province transition to a more resilient, environmentally sound economy, and it will also help farmers increase their capacity to adopt food processing and on-site packaging, the report says. 

As the B.C. ag sector adds value to local production with further processing, this also increases the sector’s contribution to GDP, employment and taxes. 

Agriculture will also help the province address environmental sustainability, including through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, a top-of-mind priority of the province that agriculture is well positioned to add, says Vander Waal. 

The ag sector is already contributing to solutions in this area, through improved methods of soil conservation, establishment of agro-forestry systems, improved livestock manure management and planting of cover crops, the report notes. 

B.C.’s farmers are also positioned to help mitigate provincial emergencies through proper management of Crown land and natural resources, an area that’s gained in importance after the province’s unprecedented flood and wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018.

This report lays out how the focus and priorities of B.C. as a whole align with what’s important to the farm sector, says Vander Waal. 

Overall, the report seeks to lay out how agriculture is part of the solution to many of the challenges facing the province, and not only in times of COVID-19 but long-term. It creates an opportunity for the sector to rebrand itself and create a new vision for agriculture in B.C. with new ideas.

“We’ve had an opportunity to put the focus back on food and to re-emphasize how important agriculture is through this study,” Vander Waal says. “Now we can work on some strategic thinking behind new ideas and a shift in perspective… We really felt this was an opportunity to highlight agriculture as a real solution in terms of the future for the province.” 

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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