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Race on to represent B.C. fruit growers

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Two candidates with opposing visions are vying to represent the province's fruit growers this year.
Jeet Dukhia, president of the BC Fruit Growers' Association, and challenger Fred Steele, the association's vice-president, have declared they're running for the top job in next weekend's election in Kelowna.
While Dukhia says his first year lobbying for the tree-fruit industry was "really good" and "productive," Steele wonders where he's been.
"The BCFGA needs to be heard and seen again. We have to raise the profile," Steele said in an interview. "There's crop-insurance issues out there. We have to find some common ground and improvements in there. Nothing has happened."
Balderdash, says Dukhia. The province has committed to long-term replant programs and to streamline crop insurance. Best of all, he said, Victoria is listening to fruit growers' claims that they deserve compensation for flood damage after the Columbia River Treaty, which is now being renegotiated with the United States.
"There's no horticultural land left in the Kootenays," Dukhia said. "We made a presentation to the Kootenays and they were pretty happy. They said this is the first time somebody has come and talked about agriculture. It was me."
If successful, the government would set up a trust fund for growers so they'd receive money to replant trees or recover from a market collapse. An independent firm would monitor the fund, said Dukhia, who lives in Vernon.
Steele, who farms four hectares of apples in Kelowna, says B.C. fruit growers deserve a legacy fund to improve the industry.
"We've been a little slow on that. . . . Prior to the Columbia River dam, we grew about 12 million boxes (of apples) on each side of the border. Now they grow about 120 million boxes and we struggle to do four million."
Steele served as the association's vice-president for two years under the late Joe Sardinha. He ran for president two years ago and lost to Kirpal Boparai, who later resigned after the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-op cancelled his co-op membership for selling fruit out of province.
Steele recently decided to run for president in the coming election. Because he hasn't been nominated, he needs more than half the association members who attend next week's convention to nominate him from the floor.
"I wouldn't be running if I didn't think I could get 50 per cent of the room," he said.
The association needs a better sense of unity and progress after a tumultuous period. It's now a coalition of people working with the Indo-Canadian community, Steele said.
"It has been divided and it's really unfortunate. I think we can overcome a lot of those problems . . . I'm gaining considerable support from the Indo-Canadian community and the non-Indo-Canadian community."
Dukhia said the Boparai era is over and growers are united. The BCFGA has good relationships with other farm associations.
"We are all growers, whether we're Europeans or Sikhs," he said. "I'm fulfilling the needs of growers. . . . If we want to be productive, we work together."
Steele, 67, says the BCFGA has been too quiet. He wants to see the executive produce a written strategic plan that outlines the association's vision for the future.
The executive has met with Okanagan MLAs Linda Larson, Dan Ashton, Norm Letnick and Steve Thomson, Dukhia said. They're asking for $2 million in annual funding to support a long-term replant program, and $1.5 million a year for hand-washing stations, septic tanks and other sanitation initiatives so workers keep food safe.
"The total ask is $3.5 million per year. It's not much. It's peanuts," he said.
The convention takes place next Friday and Saturday at the Delta Grand hotel in Kelowna. The
association has more than 500 members.

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