Orchard satisfying despite challenges

Weather woes, wildlife damage | Winterkill, flooding and a late spring prove costly to U-pick operation

VANSCOY, Sask. — A desire to grow healthy food drives the Fehr family to overcome weather, wildlife and winter every year.

“There’s been a share of challenges, but I enjoy the work,” said Ernie Fehr, who grows sour cherries, haskap and raspberries a short commute from Saskatoon at the Prairie Cherry Pit.

“The reward is bringing a real healthy fruit to people who want it.”

Ernie, with his wife, Carol, and adult children, Amanda and Ernie, spent this mid-May day pruning and preparing the bushes for the coming U-pick season. That included lowering drip irrigators after cultivating between the plants and rows.

Carol’s numerous health concerns were a driving force behind the family seeking to grow fruit high in anti-oxidants, melatonins and vitamins.

All the Fehrs except Carol work at off-farm at jobs: Ernie as a trucker, Amanda at the landfill and Ernie Jr. at Sarcan.

The Fehrs say patience is necessary in their business because full production can take five to seven years from planting.

“You don’t get into it and start counting the money the next year,” said Amanda.

“We’re always fighting with the weather. The last few years have been very wet.”

For example, Amanda cited $20,000 in replanting costs. Winterkill in raspberries forced the Fehrs to start them again from scratch.

Gophers became less of a problem the more they worked the ground, but nothing deterred deer.

“Every foot, we would put in a six-inch tree and a gopher would pull it out,” said Carol.

Before the Fehrs spent $10,000 on tall fencing, the deer would nibble at the trees each fall.

Even today, an open farm gate is reason for fleeting concern that deer might sneak into the orchard.

“They’re not scared of anything,” said Carol.

Deer-nibbled branches result in plants producing a greater density of stems and more mould, she said.

Birds can take out an entire crop. In response, the Fehrs installed a wire above the long rows of haskap to support netting used as covers.

“We had birds we’d never seen before,” said Ernie. “Hundreds came and cleaned us right out.”

Added Amanda: “It was a hard lesson learned.”

This year, the orchards are about two to three weeks behind normal.

“The snow stayed so long so we are a little behind where we would be,” said Carol.

The Fehrs receive much needed cash flow for the fledgling operation by finishing Holstein steers to 500 pounds for local auction mart sales.

They started planting in 2005 and opened in 2009.

Carol said trees were a rare commodity when the family moved to this “wild piece of land” with good water and an abandoned yard and house in 1986.

She saw the orchard as part of the couple’s retirement plan.

“We were looking for something that we could do on 40 acres,” said Ernie, whose interest was spiked by fruit breeder Bob Bors of the University of Saskatchewan.

They chose fruit that was not commercially available in the area and created processing and rest areas for pickers.

The Fehrs enjoy working outdoors with plants, seeing the orchard in flower each spring and pitching in where necessary.

“I like being out there, riding around,” said Ernie Jr.

Ernie Sr., who once owned a trucking firm, likes being his own boss again.

An esthetically pleasing orchard is rewarding for Amanda, who is also responsible for tallying fruit yields.

Her job is to help keep the land healthy, which is accomplished with manure supplied by their steers rather than chemicals.

The Fehrs market their in-season fruit through highway signs, a gate post featuring what’s ready to pick and the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers Association website.

The association also keeps its members updated on industry trends.

“It’s nice having a community of people in the same business,” said Amanda.

Added Carol: “They understand where you’re coming from.”

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