Passion for horticulture survives weather, disease challenges

MELFORT, Sask. — Mel Annand has been here before.

In 2010, spring floods killed many trees at Creekside Orchard, which he operates with his wife, Imogene Schick.

This spring, frost was the culprit.

“We’ll have next to no apple crop,” Annand said in early June during an orchard tour.

Obviously, fruit growers can’t reseed their crops after frost kills the blooms. It’s simply a case of waiting until next year.

The past five years have been challenging for Creekside, which produces apples and cherries.

“The northeast has been terribly wet. Unusually wet,” Annand said.

“That’s just really hard on trees. We’ve had a challenge trying to keep them alive and keep them productive, so we’re hoping for dry weather this year.”

Typically, the orchard’s apples are used to make cider, juice and apple cider vinegar.

“Some of it has gone into fresh eating through the local Co-op store as well,” Annand said. “Plus, we do U-pick.”

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Most of the cherries go to Prairie Fruit Processors in Saskatoon.

“They have a pitting line, so we can pit the cherries and then they are usually frozen for later processing into cherry products or cherry juice.”

All of the apples and cherries that the couple grows are University of Saskatchewan varieties.

The connection to the university stems from Annand’s days as a student there. He also worked in the horticulture department.

He and Schick acquired a barley field at the edge of Melfort, Sask., and 10 years ago planted a 10-acre shelter belt and then apples and cherries on 40 acres. They also have sea buckthorn, black currants, raspberries and asparagus.

A café and processing facility are on site, and the couple brings in guest chefs for special dinners.

“We’re just trying to build something new and different and a nice place to be,” Annand said.

The apple orchard includes Red Mike apples grafted onto cold-hardy dwarfing Ottawa 3 rootstock as well as Prairie Sensation and Prairie Sun varieties. Annand said the latter variety appears to have weathered the frost the best.

They grow Carmine Jewel, a reliable dwarf sour cherry variety, and the entire Romance series of sweeter cherries: Juliet, Valentine, Cupid, Crimson Passion and Romeo.

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Three years ago Annand and Schick saw their best cherry harvest ever of 11,000 pounds of cherries, but since then yields have dropped to 6,000 and then 1,000 lb. because of disease pressure.

Cherries have also suffered from frost this year, but he hopes that some will have escaped because the varieties bloom at different times.

His favourite variety is the Crimson Passion because of its large size and texture similar to a bing cherry. The varieties are used for different products. For example, wine makers like Valentine for its tartness and high sugar content.

Annand said he has no plans to grow anything else at this point. Saskatoons were considered and discarded early on because of the chemical treatment they require, but he said he has ended up needing to treat apples and cherries anyway.

“I’ve said sometimes the only other crop I would consider now are cranberries because they grow in a bog,” he said of the ongoing wet conditions.

The couple has yet to make the returns from fruit that they had hoped to see, but Annand’s passion for horticulture endures.

“I have a law practice to support my farming habit, and I don’t feel bad about that because lots of people have off-farm jobs,” he said.

He gets a thrill from watching his grandchildren pick apples off the trees and eat them.

“And knowing that we have an apple variety that can get into the retail store in town here and compete both quality and price-wise with anything they bring in, that’s rewarding as well.”

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Contact karen.briere@producer.com