The True Costs of Farming in the Okanagan

Farming is expensive in Canada. One way of looking at it is shown by the apple plantation below.

Let’s look:

Posts: harvested on the plateau, trucked, milled, impregnated with toxic copper compounds, and trucked again. Machinery and labour to pound the posts.

Water: harvested in the hills, piped, and distributed through pvc pipe and plastic tubing. Per acre fees. They are subsidized.

Wire: mined, smelted, manufactured, trucked and laid out. Plus clips to hold the wires to the posts, and others to hold the water tubing and the trees to the wires.

Trees: roots developed in England, cloned, grafted to desired varieties, including royalties, scion wood, grafting materials and labour.

Fencing: a cage around the entire plantation.

Machinery: tractors, mowers, post pounders, wire installers, loaders, sprayers and so on.

Chemicals: fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Land: It doesn’t come cheap. It is in competition with gentrified land uses. In other words, it looks pretty. That has a price.

Taxes: Everybody pays taxes. These are subsidized. Agriculture’s land taxes are low.

Labour: As little as possible, but still a sizeable cost.

Packing, Packaging, Storage and Shipping: You gotta pay for this stuff, too.

Capital: Purchasing and planting this plot alone would have cost about $2,000,000. That money needs to be paid for, one apple at a time.

These are the private and public investments that create and support this form of land use. This is not a simple thing!

However, here are some costs that do not show up on a balance sheet, looked at from within the environmental community as a whole, that space that must be maintained if life on this land is to be sustained:

Water: When water is removed from the mountains, the mountains burn. When large sections of the mountains are set aside for water collection, they are unavailable for agriculture, permaculture or wildcrafting. The efficiencies to be gained by growing crops in areas with a 35% greater water efficiency is lost. The concentration on delivering flowing blue water decreases attention to holding water in life systems. The result is flooding. The orchard above contains a natural watercourse. You can see the edge of an acre of degraded wetland at the top of the image. It is being used to store stones picked from the rest of the plot. This erasure of a watercourse reduces the capacity of the land to maintain birds, animals and complex plant communities, creating unusable, waste land in its place. All of these are costs born by the environment, including by other species, as water is removed from it and forced through a monoculture instead. Environmentally, these costs likely exceed the value of apples grown on this land, at best a million pounds of apples at (I’m guessing) an average wholesale price of perhaps $.25 per pound, or $250,000 per year, gross. At best. The subsidization of water by low rates results in punishing water rates for other users. The difference enables a food industry to exist. This is an expense to the environment and to society.

Note that this system can continue, with mountains devoted to water gathering, increased taxation to support the upkeep of aging water systems, continued costs for flood-control and fire suppression, increased health costs for dirty air, and decreased water availability for other uses as the population increases. A land system like this does not have resilience and is not sitting well to deal with climate change or to promote innovation, except in finding ever-greater simplification and intensification. Land will become more and more the plaything of a minority, and not the minority with the skills to husband it well. The land, however, will remain, and it will continue to shed water.

Labour: The high density system you see above has been designed to deny access (that fence) to all species, including humans, and to reduce human labour. Labour lost includes: weeding, pruning, training, thinning, picking, sorting, and packaging. In its place, there is reduced yield, standardized quality, and, to make the volume needed to produce efficiencies workable, expensive cold storage to extend the life of apples picked all at one time. In societal terms, this loss of labour results in high-priced fruit that people (without paid labour) can hardly afford to buy, the elimination of affordable second grade fruit (it is thinned off long before harvest), and other labour costs to do with packaging and transporting fruit, which has been eliminated entirely. In its place are capital costs, machine costs and chemical costs. This is an expensive to society.

Note that this system can continue, with farms devoted to producing high volumes of fruit sold in supermarkets at high prices, or with farms going bankrupt, going out of business and the land used for housing instead. This is not a path to sustainability. If food production is to be maintained, it will have to be subsidized by payments from other economic sectors. The willingness to do so has never proven to be particularly strong, and is usually predicated on building capacity so the investments will not need to be made again. In fact, the high density system is the result of 40 years of investments of this type. And yet, the problems remain.

Innovation: The elimination of skilled labour on the farm results in the export of innovation to those centres where it is rewarded, in the cultures of capital, machine production and chemical innovation and production. These are costs to the local community, as they involve a transfer of creativity from this environment to one at a distance, which returns money, hopefully, through the purchase of fruit, but does not return creativity. In effect, creativity is being drawn down. As for the trade of apples for capital, I doubt if the bankers of Toronto are buying apples from Vernon, BC, or if the machinery-manufacturers of Ohio and Sweden (and so on) are buying apples from Vernon, either. The balance will come from other trade items, which will enable the general local economy to be maintained, and even to thrive, but even so does not return to the land to enrich it. What is enriched is a streamlined productivity on the land, on a factory, manufacturing model. This is an expensive to both the environment and to society.

Note that this system can also continue, with other economic sectors playing the role of creators and innovators. These will provide social planning solutions, tourism solutions, financial solutions, advertising solutions, technological solutions, and so on, each according to its nature, which will deepen this system without solving its environmental debts. It will become more deeply-integrated into society rather than more deeply-integrated into the environment. That is not the definition of environmental resiliency. The environment will lose the capacity to innovate. What it will do instead is to erode, in order to force the conditions for change. More and more human capital will have to be extended to maintain the system, with all its flaw, leaving little capital for other projects. This is not a particularly creative legacy to bequeath our children.

All of it represents the removal of the land from Indigenous stewardship in the decades following 1858, and the continuation of agricultural models laid down between 1895 and 1914, coupled with the systems seeming inability to meaningfully integrate with broad environmental networks. These are the costs.

This is more a joke than an orchard. Wouldn’t you love to have $2,000,000 to throw away?

Tomorrow, let’s talk about some of the benefits we can build with farming instead, because we can, and we must.



2 replies »

  1. Re: labour, I’m reminded of that line from Woody Guthrie’s Deportees, “Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?” He was talking about the globalized class system that underpins our economies — and makes things even more brittle and with less capacity to innovate.


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