]Agriculture is the all-important afterthought in B.C.'s economy

    Agriculture is the all-important afterthought in B.C.'s economy

    The sector rarely gets much attention, but counting its spinoffs, it employs 300,000 people


    High-tech has social media atwitter, oil and gas dominates the news, mining commands the government's attention and forestry has a fabled history. But surely no economic activity in B.C. is as important as producing food.

    Agriculture tends to be overlooked as an engine of the economy largely because of the way industries are categorized. As a primary industry, excluding commercial fishing, aquaculture or post-farm processing, agriculture seems like a bit player, with sales in 2011 of $2.6 billion, representing a contribution to gross domestic product of just 0.8 per cent. Government figures show agriculture employs only 26,000 out of a total labour force of 2.3 million. In the provincial budget, the Ministry of Agriculture receives the least ($80 million in 2010-2011) of all ministries.

    But growing vegetables and raising livestock are only part of the story. Agricultural output must be processed, packaged and delivered to consumers. The supply chain is where the value-added is to be found. Add to production the processing, transportation, warehousing, wholesaling and retailing of food - and agriculture rivals manufacturing as the largest industry group in B.C., with revenues of more than $40 billion and nearly 300,000 workers. Those figures represent 13.6 per cent of B.C.'s labour force and nearly 19 per cent of GDP. Food and beverage processing, comprising 1,400 small-and medium-sized firms, is the largest manufacturing activity in B.C.

    Breaking it back down into segments, B.C. agrifoods - which includes primary production in agriculture, aquaculture and commercials fisheries, as well as processing of food and beverages - posted sales of $10.9 billion in 2011, of which $2.4 billion were exports.

    The sector produced more than 200 primary agricultural products as well as 100 species of fish, shellfish and marine plants. The government hopes to make it bigger still.

    "As part of the B.C. government's agrifoods strategy and B.C. Jobs Plan, we are working to grow our agrifoods industry to $14 billion in annual revenue by 2017, and build on the 61,000 jobs the industry currently provides," said Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick.

    He said the plan is to increase both domestic and international markets, in part by encouraging innovation and competitiveness.

    B.C.'s 20,000 farms are already highly productive, occupying less than three per cent of the provincial land base, or roughly 2.6 million hectares, yet exporting from that acreage $1.5 billion worth of agriculture products to more than 140 different markets in 2011, an increase of 6.9 per cent over 2010. The top export markets were the U.S. (74 per cent), Japan (five per cent), South Korea and China (both three per cent) and Taiwan (two per cent). South Korea and Taiwan are B.C.'s fastest growing export markets.

    And the top products B.C.'s export customers bought were $268 million of fruit and nut products, $232.6 million worth of vegetable products, $209.1 million of live animals, meat and animal products, $78.9 million of alfalfa fodder and animal feeds and $58.2 million in floriculture and nursery products.

    Agriculture product shipments contributed 63 per cent and seafood product shipments 37 per cent of the total value of agrifoods exports in 2011. Seafood is an important part of B.C.'s agrifoods sector, accounting for more than $900 million in exports in 2011. B.C. is the fourth-largest producer of cultured Atlantic salmon in the world after Norway, the United Kingdom and Chile. Cultured Atlantic salmon makes up fully one-third of B.C.'s total seafood exports.

    The ministry attributes some of the export success to recent trade missions to China, where agricultural exports increased to $148 million in 2011 from $118 million in 2010.

    Back at home, B.C. led Canadian sales of blueberries, sweet cherries, raspberries, apricots, brussels sprouts and rhubarb and in seafood sales of cultured and wild salmon, halibut, tuna, rockfish, skate, dogfish, sea cucumber, and farmed clams, oysters and scallops.


    The diverse climate and terrain in B.C. give each region its own agricultural characteristics and allow B.C. to produce a wide variety of commodities. The Lower Mainland and Southwest, which accounts for 29 per cent of the province's farms and 65 per cent of B.C.'s total farm receipts, is known for greenhouse and field vegetables, mushrooms, berries, floriculture and nursery, as well as animal products such as dairy, beef, pork, poultry and eggs, and honey bees. The Thompson-Okanagan boasts the highest number of farms reporting organic products for sale and is the primary growing area for cherries, apples, other tree fruits and grapes. The total area planted for sweet cherries here represents 87 per cent of B.C.'s and 75 per cent of Canada's total farmland in sweet cherries. Also of note, this is B.C.'s wine country.

    The Kootenay is where one finds half the provincial land devoted to Christmas tree production and ranks as the second-largest cherry producing region. The Cariboo is concentrated in beef cattle and hay and filed crop production, while the North Coast is focused on cattle ranching, horse breeding and forage crops. Cattle ranching is also a mainstay of the Nechako region. In the Peace River region, primary products are wheat, canola, barley and hay crops, along with cattle ranching.

    Vancouver Island and the Central Coast offer the full range of B.C. agricultural production - forage, tree fruits, grapes, berries, field vegetables, nursery and floriculture, as well as livestock farms raising beef, dairy, hogs, poultry and eggs, sheep, lamb, goats, and horses.

    The flip side of the export story is the $5-billion worth of agricultural products such as rice, citrus fruits, bananas, year-round vegetables, coffee, spices and tea that are imported mainly from the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Australia, China and Thailand.


    The 2011 Census of Agriculture, released last May, reported that farm revenues rose at a faster rate than farm expenses, resulting in slightly improved profit margins - good news for B.C. farms, of which 98 per cent are family operations. Rising real estate values bumped up the value of farm capital in B.C. in 2011 to $34.7 billion, up $9.8 billion, or nearly 40 per cent from a year earlier.

    B.C. is home to 569 farms that report sales of certified organic or transitional products (the latter being products that meet organic growing standards but are not yet certified). Most (399 farms) report organic fruits, vegetables or greenhouse products for sale; and many report organic hay or field crops, organic animals or animal products and organic herbs, spices. Two farms had organic maple products for sale.

    Given the bounty of B.C. farms, the local food movement in the province wields considerable influence and has the ear of government. "The B.C. government is committed to promoting local foods and the passion for local items has never been stronger," Agriculture Minister Letnick said. "We will continue to work with producers and communities to ensure British Columbians recognize the economic, environmental and health benefits of buying local."

    However, local food fans might want to pick up a copy of the Ministry of Agriculture's 2007 study, BC's Food Self Reliance: Can BC Farmers Feed Our Growing Population. It estimated that B.C. farmers produce 48 per cent of all foods consumed in B.C.

    You don't need to be a statistician to see that's less than half.


    Often overlooked in any ranking of leading industries, agriculture is actually one of the largest, especially if you follow its output through the food chain. Agriculture, aquaculture, food processing, food wholesaling, retail and food services had combined revenue of more than $40 billion in 2011 and employed over 300,000 people.


    Sales (2011): $810.2M

    Jobs (2011): 8,000



    Sales (2011): $2.6B

    Jobs (2011): 52,700



    Value (2011): $5.0B



    Sales (2011): $7.5B

    Jobs (2010): 30,300



    Sales (2009): $10.4B*

    Jobs (2011): 13,400



    Foreign (2011): $2.5B

    Other provinces (2011): $3.6B

    $2.5B $3.6B


    Sales (2009): $19.7B*

    Jobs (2011): 225,730


    COMBINED REVENUE: $41.7 billion TOTAL JOBS: 330,130

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