B.C.’s business of growing is growing fast

Value of agriculture, seafood exports now on par with copper and steelmaking coal

Paul Falcon grows organic blueberries at his Falconglen Organic Farms in Langley | Credit: Rob Kruyt

Just five years ago, the most valuable export commodities coming out of the ground in B.C. apart from trees were copper and metallurgical coal.

But in 2015, the value of B.C. food exports surpassed both copper and metallurgical coal. Met coal used to be B.C.’s second most valuable export, next to lumber.

Copper exports in 2015 were valued at $2.9 billion, according to BC Stats, and outbound metallurgical coal was worth $3 billion. Agri-food and seafood exports in 2015 hit a record $3.8 billion.

Agri-food and seafood exports have grown from 7.2% of B.C.’s total exports in 2006 to 10.7% in 2015. B.C. exports of agricultural and food products increased 5.7% between November 2015 and 2016, and seafood products were up 16.1%.

B.C. salmon farmers marked record exports in 2015, with China and South Korea providing important new markets. Farmed salmon exports increased 38% since 2013.

Overall, B.C.’s food sector employs 55,000 people directly and 20,000 farm families, according to the provincial government.

While the sector’s displacement of met coal or copper in terms of the value of its exports is partly attributable to sustained low resource prices, B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick is also taking some credit. He points to his government’s 2012 B.C. agri-foods strategy, which was updated in 2015 and now aims to raise agri-food and seafood revenue to $15 billion by 2020.

“Agriculture is a key part of our economy,” Letnick said. “It employs a lot of people, creates a lot of GDP.”

B.C. berry and cherry growers have done particularly well in developing new markets in China. B.C. blueberry growers had a record year for exports in 2015 ($218 million) – a 29% increase over 2014.

Cherry growers exported 13,600 tonnes of cherries in 2015 – a 56% increase over 2014 – for sales worth $92 million.

“The demand from China is insatiable,” said Julie McLachlan, general sales manager for Jealous Fruits, an Okangan Valley cherry grower with 650 acres of orchards under production and with plans to nearly double in size to 1,100 acres by 2021. “We could sell our entire crop into China.”

McLachlan added that the company’s exports to Vietnam and Thailand have grown 300%.

To achieve its 2020 revenue targets, Letnick said his government plans to increase farmland production and continue to develop export markets.

Primary producers are challenged by the lack of arable land in B.C. Even so, the B.C. government hopes to increase farmland production by an additional 91,000 hectares by 2020.

The plan also aims to increase seafood production 13,000 tonnes over five years, 12,000 of which would be from aquaculture.

B.C. farmland is protected in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), but Letnick said only about half of that land is used to produce food. His government hopes tax incentives will encourage more production on ALR land.

Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment, said it might take more than tax incentives.

She said B.C. has two of three critical components for “a stable, excellent farming system at an industrial level”: the ALR and Right to Farm Act. What’s missing, she said, is enforcement that ensures farmland is farmed.

“We’re starting to see this problem of hobby farms and little manors,” she said. “As taxpayers, we’ve made this huge investment putting aside about half the land in the flatland of the Lower Mainland for farming. We didn’t put it aside as a really nice tax break for extremely wealthy people to live on a manor.”

The wild seafood sector is also constrained. It can’t really increase production, thanks to conservation and fisheries management, so it needs to increase value through more exports.

“The B.C. wild seafood industry is an export industry,” said Chris Sporer, executive director for the Seafood Producers Association of British Columbia. “We export about 80% of the production. We see lots of opportunities in Asia, not just China.”

The seafood sector is one that has seen fairly significant export growth, especially in Asia.

“Definitely the exports have been growing,” said Brian Yip, general manager for Fanny Bay Oysters on Vancouver Island. “We allocate about one-third of our volume for overseas. A few years ago I would say we might be 10%, 15%.”

Trade agreements like the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement and Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) will address trade barriers. One sector that expects to benefit from CETA is wild and cultivated mushrooms.

“Europe is always going to be big because they have an affinity for mushrooms,” said David Lee Kwen, owner of Richmond-based Misty Mountain Specialties.

Currently, Canadian mushroom growers compete with U.S. growers. Under CETA, duties of 15% to 17% will disappear.

“Once the CETA kicks in, we will not be paying the import duties so it will help us significantly,” Lee Kwen said.

B.C. food processing a $9 billion industry

Holy Crap chia cereal. Hippie Snacks. Ethical Bean Coffee. So Nice soy and almond milk.

Given B.C.’s West Coast urban-hippie subculture, it’s probably no surprise that a significant number of food manufacturers in B.C. produce edibles and beverages for the earth- and health-conscious consumer.

If you buy only organic, gluten-free, halal/kosher or non-GMO food products, there’s a good chance it was made in B.C.

When it comes to agri-food and seafood, the single largest sub-sector in B.C. isn’t growing or harvesting food, but processing and packaging it.

Seventy per cent of the $13 billion in revenue generated in 2015 from agri-food and seafood was in a value-added sector: food processors and packagers.

“Agri-foods is the No. 2 manufacturing sector in the province, after forestry,” said B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick.

From artisanal salt made from sea water (Vancouver Island Salt Co.) to vegan, gluten-free soups made by Global Gourmet Foods Inc. and premium chocolates (Foley’s, Denman Island Chocolate, Brockmann’s Chocolates), making munchies has become a significant industry in B.C.

There are roughly 1,800 food producers and packagers in B.C. They range from small boutique producers focused on niche markets, like Northern Divine Aquafarms Ltd., which raises sturgeon to produce caviar, to Earth’s Own Food Co., which has annual revenue of $100 million from its So Nice soy and almond milk products.

In addition to the organic foods and snacks sector, B.C.’s ethnic diversity has also produced a number of ethnic food and snack makers, like Nana’s Kitchen, which makes samosas, H.B. Kaysons Ltd., which makes Indian snacks made from chickpeas, and Punjab Milk Foods Inc., which makes the Nanak Foods brand Indian foods.