By ROY WOOD
Pastor Phil Johnson has at least a little cause for optimism after his appearance before Osoyoos council today detailing the successes and challenges of the summer pickers’ camp out behind his Baptist Church.
Over June and July, some 300 mostly young would-be fruit pickers from across Canada and around the world pitched their tents on the gravel expanse west of the church. Two porta-potties and the washroom and shower facilities in the church were available to the itinerant workers.
Johnson told council one of the reasons he requested to appear today was to seek some sort of legal sanction from government to protect the church and the town from potential legal problems. He suggested a possible “temporary zoning” from the town or some sort of pickers’ camp designation from the province.
Mayor Sue McKortoff offered positive, if rather vague, assurance. “You’ve come to the right people,” she said. “Because our CAO and planning director are both here and I know that type of thing will be possibly looked at to see if we can help you come up with a solution.”
Much of the problem is financial. Johnson said the church spent about $19,000 on camping, garbage, sanitation, showers and meals. The bulk of it was raised locally, with some help coming from another Baptist congregation in Abbotsford.
Johnson acknowledged that the congregation lost a few members as a result of the camping project, which the church carried out for the first time this summer. It has been sponsoring dinners for pickers during peak season for several years.
Johnson and some members of council agreed that local farmers and orchardists should be doing more to deal with their accommodation
Aside from about $1,000 from a never-completed project sponsored by the BC Fruit Growers’ Association from five or six years ago, the church received no financial support from the agriculture industry.
“Our farmers and orchardists need to recognize that this is their responsibility, too,” he said. “They’re the ones who need them.”
Councillor Mike Campol concurred, wondering why the industry “hasn’t put skin in the game. … It’s hard for me to get behind putting significant (taxpayer) money toward this … when I don’t see the industry stepping forward to do their part.”
Asked by Councillor Carol Youngberg if the church would be willing to run the camp again if sufficient funding was available, Johnson said, “We certainly would look at it. We’re very open to it.”
Johnson described the church campsite as a “landing strip” for pickers who often arrive in Osoyoos at the beginning of the fruit season with no contacts and no real idea of how the system works.
Osoyoos is often the pickers’ first stop. “They all come here first. They all want to get into the first tree, the first crop, and that’s here,” he said.
Once the season starts, the pickers fan out to the various orchards, some of which offer reasonable accommodation for the pickers’ tents. Occasionally, farmers would drive to the church campsite to hire pickers for the day.
Johnson told council that at the peak, the campsite held 200 tents. The visitors included people from 43 different countries. Two porta-potties were emptied every day and the garbage bin twice a week. The church served 3,284 meals, including 882 on one evening.
He told council that he is taking three separate months of sabbatical this year. One of them was July “when all I did was deal with pickers. I hung around town, but I didn’t have to preach on Sundays.”
He said the site had cleared out, but a few tents have sprouted up again as some workers have come back to get in on the apple and grape seasons.