Agriculture

Race and Apples 8: Connecting food costs, land prices and white privilege

Before 1923, Indigenous farmers contributed to apple growing in Cascadia in four primary ways:

  1. As labourers at such places as the Hudson’s Bay Company gardens at Fort Vancouver, Fort Okanogan, Fort Colville and Fort Keremeos, back into the 1830s, as well as at the Oblate Missions in Olympia and Okanogan Smith’s orchard on Osoyoos Lake, and then on new American and Canadian orchards planted on their former lands.
  2. As subsistence farmers, growing apples for their own kitchen use.
  3. As farmers selling into an Indigenous trade economy.
  4. As farmers selling into a monetary economy.

After 1923, the last two were pretty much dropped in northern Cascadia (British Columbia) after legal pressure. At the same time, the loss of many British orchardists in the recently-concluded war in Europe led to a big influx of Germans, who became the labourers and landowners, followed by Doukhobors, Dutch, Portuguese and French Canadians, and finally Sikhs. One by one their children were all absorbed by Canadian white culture, with two exceptions. Today, most orchards are either Sikh or Portuguese, and yet the valley remains predominantly white. Here’s how that happened:

That’s right, this:

It’s not a totally white industry, and it doesn’t only employ the children and grandchildren of former white orchardists. There are Portuguese, Sikh and Indigenous vineyards, but only a very few. It has replaced orchards on almost all arable land in the valley, and no longer produces food to feed anyone. Now, I enjoy wine myself, that’s not the point. The point is, the apples, and their links to Indigenous culture are gone, as well as any notion that land was removed from Indigenous stewardship in order to grow food to feed people. That’s a pretty privileged use of land. And it’s not like this is wine for the people in general, with most pretty ordinary bottles starting above $20 and quickly getting up to $30, something you could put on your table for $8-$10 in Germany. An argument I heard on the radio out of Vancouver was that we had to pay more than other regions for our wine, because of the high cost of land. Indeed. This is a cheap one:

Your income on those grapes is not going to cover your land taxes, or your labour, if you look at it that way, let alone anything else, but what the heck. For 10 acre blocks, prices are around $2,500,000, and it just goes up from there. This is a real estate industry (just as orchards were 125 years ago), importing people with money to come and live a life of aristocratic European ease. It can, granted, be pretty nice, but to be practical, it drives the prices of all other land up at the same time. No young person in the Okanagan can ever own land now, or likely ever buy a house. You won’t get a house for under $500,000, and you won’t get land to grow carrots for less than that $1,400,000. In other words, all young people in the valley are now in the position that all young Indigenous people were in 125 years ago: landless and impoverished. And the land doesn’t even represent their history. Now, we can argue that all of this provides solid jobs in the hospitality industry, but that is also to say largely low-paid jobs in service to new residents with money and to people enjoying a European or Californian aristocratic dream vacation. And the land doesn’t even provide food for them! That must be imported from California and Mexico at great expense, which is to say, in both instances, grown by Mexican labour, with profits made along the way by many players, pushing the food costs through the roof. However beautiful and tasteful it all is…

Yes, this really is a giant statue outside a winery tasting room.

… it is not sustainable. There is a lot of happiness in this transformation, a lot of poverty, a fair bit of silliness, and very little to eat. And to think that the Germans who came from 1923-1933 came to escape oppression of the working class, and to start a commune. Hunh. Race and privilege are powerful forces, for sure.

Tomorrow, we will look at solutions.

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