If job creation is Premier Christy Clark's top priority, as we repeatedly hear it is, she should turn her attention to the farm sector. Employment in agriculture has taken a hammering in recent years and the government she heads is, to a considerable extent, responsible.
The number of workers employed on Vancouver Island farms fell by more than 40 per cent over the past seven years. Provincewide, it was 50 per cent. Considering that most sectors of the B.C. economy recorded job growth in that period, the agriculture figures are disturbing. No doubt there are various reasons for the collapse. Food production is sensitive to numerous factors, such as weather and competition from the import market.
But notably, the downward march began after the provincial government introduced sweeping new farm regulations in 2006. At that time, there were fears about mad-cow disease.
The concern turned out to be exaggerated. Only a few animals were infected in B.C., and they were quickly removed.
Nevertheless, much tougher constraints were imposed on farmers who raise and butcher animals. The standards required of commercial-grade abattoirs were imposed on everyone. For small-scale producers, the capital costs were impossible, and many went under.
Hardest hit were farm-gate operators, who sell their product at roadside stands and farmers' markets. Though many of them raised no more than a handful of turkeys or a few head of cattle, they were a mainstay of the rural economy.
But the new regulations made it uneconomical for these producers to carry on, and a countryside tradition that dates far back into history disappeared overnight.
The extent of the impact can be gauged from a resolution presented at last week's annual meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. In the East Kootenay area, before the new regulations came in, there were 151 cattle operations, 56 sheep and goat farms, and 25 hog farms.
Today only 78 cattle operations survive, along with just five sheep and goat farms, and one hog farm.
There is, of course, another side to this issue. Preserving food safety is one of the basic duties of government.
So some degree of regulation is essential. The question is, where is the oversight needed? Most cases of food-related illness can be traced to industrialscale operators, such as meatpacking plants and large commercial vegetable growers. Those certainly require the full weight of government inspection.
But there have been few instances of people being made sick by farm-gate meat, even before the new licensing regime was introduced. It appears that small size, far from being a risk factor, might offer some protection.
It's not hard to see why. Neighbourhood farms operate under the eyes of the community. Customers can see for themselves if the animals are well treated.
And indeed, the government is slowly coming around. The meat-butchering regulations are being slackened at the margins to allow farm-gate operators a small amount of room.
Whether it's a case of too little, too late, however, is a good question. Farming is a labour of love. It's doubtful whether such a demanding way of life, once abandoned, can be restored.
And that would be a great pity.
Vancouver Islanders have the good fortune to live close to the land. We have a stake in preserving the family farms around us.
This editorial first appeared in the Times Colonist " We want to hear from you.
Send comments on this editorial to email@example.com.
© Copyright 2013