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Support for agriculture growth focus of duelling reports by B.C. and Opposition

VICTORIA — British Columbia announced a growth plan for a $15-billion agriculture and seafood industry Wednesday, when the NDP said the government's support for farmers is the worst of any province in Canada.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick issued a report in Vancouver at the same time that the Opposition Standing Committee for Agriculture and Food delivered its report in Victoria after meetings with farmers across B.C.

Both sides made subtle references to a coincidence in timing in the release of duelling reports.

"It's clear from every presenter that came to us that there isn't enough support for agriculture in the province," said NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham. "That's coming from large stakeholders and small stakeholders."

The opposition committee, which includes five New Democrats and Delta South Independent Vicki Huntington, was formed after the government made legislated changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve, created more than 40 years ago to protect farmland.

The committee held public hearings in Williams Lake, Courtenay, Chilliwack and Vancouver. Its report concluded farmers face several challenges as they struggle with bureaucracy and high costs that deter young people from considering farming for a living.

"Statistics Canada reports that net farm income in B.C. has been consistently negative, and B.C. is the only province in Canada where total net income has been negative for the past five years," the report said.

Popham said more than half of B.C.'s farmers are forced to find work off their farms.

"B.C. has the least financial support in Canada for agriculture," she said. "We don't see enough money supporting things like beekeeping inspections and we also don't see policies. That combination creates a very shaky foundation for agriculture, and you can only let that go on for so long before it's a house of cards."

But Letnick said the agriculture and seafood industries are growing, and that's reflected in the new target of $15 billion in revenues by 2020. Last month, he announced record sales of $12.3 billion for the sector in 2014.

Letnick said the growth plan includes 20 new actions involving adapting to climate change and developing new markets for B.C. products.

"When I was in China last year to promote our cherries, blueberries and pork products, the one thing that came to me crystal clear from the people there was they like to buy our products because they are grown in healthy land, with good healthy water and in healthy air," Letnick said.

B.C.'s agrifoods sector employs 55,000 people.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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