Livestock producers and regional politicians who lobbied for farm gate sales in the North Okanagan Regional District are voicing concerns about the pace of a pilot project to allow for such sales that was announced in February.
"We are still on standby," Regional District of North Okanagan vice-chair Rick Fairbairn said on Thursday, adding that his staff have been told by the provincial Agriculture Ministry that licence applications will not be processed until August.
That would mean new licences, if granted, wouldn't come until after a provincial election and too late for producers who hoped to raise and slaughter animals this year, Mr. Fairbairn notes.
B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick, however, says the timeline of the pilot project has not been affected by the pending election.
"We said the intent was to have the pilot project licences issued by the fall and that is still the intent," Mr. Letnick said on Thursday, adding that talks are now under way to develop a "code of practice" for the new licence holders that would cover matters such as animal welfare and food safety.
In February, as part of a series of announcements relating to provincial meat inspection, Mr. Letnick unveiled a pilot project to provide up to five Class E licences in the North Okanagan over a two-year period.
Under B.C.'s graduated licensing system, Class E licences allow producers to kill up to 10 animal "units" a year for direct sale to consumers, with a unit consisting of 1,000 pounds of live animals.
The E licences – along with a Class D category that allows for the on-farm slaughter of up to 25 animal units a year for sale to local consumers as well as to area restaurants and retail outlets – were announced in 2010 after complaints that provincial regulations were driving small producers out of business or underground. Currently, however, Class D and E licences are available only in 10 designated remote districts. Applications for E licences from producers in other districts, such as the North Okanagan, are considered on a case-by-case basis, but producers say they are rarely granted.
In 2004, B.C. introduced a meat-inspection regulation that required all meat for human consumption to be processed in a provincially or federally licensed facility. Rather than spend money to upgrade facilities, many small, farm-based slaughterhouses closed.
That resulted in gaps in the North Okanagan, where about 9 per cent of the land base is in the Agricultural Land Reserve and where the regional district has identified agriculture – along with forestry and tourism – as a key economic driver. About 10 custom poultry and red-meat processing facilities closed after the new regulations were introduced, according to a 2008 report prepared for the district.
After several years of lobbying MLAs and agriculture ministers on the issue, area politicians and producers found a receptive listener last year in Mr. Letnick.
But there are still questions about the scope and pace of the changes.
"When they [producers] heard the pilot was announced, to them that meant that they would be off and running for this growing season, this agricultural season," NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham said. "Having it come in August misses the growing season – so it's another year of delay."
Ms. Popham, whose Saanich South riding includes many small poultry producers but lacks an abattoir, also questioned the scope of the pilot project, saying producers in other regions could benefit from greater access to Class E licences.
The province has said that if the program is successful in the Northern Okanagan, it could be expanded to other parts of the province. Ms. Popham said the NDP would be unlikely to cancel the pilot project if the party wins the election in May.