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Fruit growers praised as juice makers

Avoids risk of fresh market | Orchard growers hope to expand juice production

CRESTON, B.C. — A sip of Tabletree black cherry juice is like eating the fruit straight from the tree.

Gary and Sue Snow of Creston have earned international and provincial accolades for their products, including the best juice award in Barcelona, Spain, at the World Juice conference in 2012.

They stood alone as farmers among 350 beverage companies from 55 countries.

Last year, they received second place for the best new nectar or juice in a competition in Germany

The Snow farm has been in Sue’s family for more than 100 years and began as an apple orchard.

In 1991, the family decided to replant cherries with assurances this crop would be the salvation of the struggling British Columbia tree fruit industry.

The orchard has four cherry varieties, including Skeena, Lapin, Sweetheart and Kootenay, a variety Sue’s father, Lew Truscott, developed.

“If you bought a cherry anywhere in the world in the mid 1990s, there was a good chance it came from here,” Gary said.

It has been a journey of twists and turns for this couple who met 30 years ago when Gary’s band was playing at the Creston Valley Blossom Festival.

They married in 1987 and travelled North America following Gary’s music career as a bass guitar player. Sue eventually became a hospital administrator in Kalispell, Montana, where their son, Micah, was born.

They returned to the farm in 1996 when prices were good and the future looked promising.

“I used to tell people then that apples would bring you maybe $4,000 a year per acre and cherries would be $40,000,” said Lew, who has worked on this farm since the 1930s.

Now, Sue estimates it costs $1.70 per pound to pick, pack and produce cherries, but they are paid an average of 85 cents per pound.

The market has declined in the last five years as more cherries entered the market and Washington’s in-creased production dwarfed B.C. growers’ efforts.

Things worsened for the Snows in 2009 when three days of heavy rain at harvest ruined their crop. The cherries were engorged and started to split, so they were unacceptable for the fresh market.

“We lost $400,000 that year from losing that crop and really we have never recovered from that,” said Gary.

That forced them to think about a value added product.

They first researched the concept to avoid making mistakes. They have an environmental farm plan, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the United States Food and Drug Administration has certified the operation and they wrote a hazard analysis critical control points plan.

They are also part of the Global Gap program, in which all work, health and safety, pesticide use, employee training and other farm activities are documented for an annual audit.

The next step was to experiment with recipes and develop machinery to give them a product that does not oxidize and turn brown. Their juice has no additives other than honey and cinnamon.

Today, demand outstrips their supply.

The juice goes into 250 millilitre and 750 ml bottles sporting a label designed by Sue. There is a pound of cherries in every 250 ml bottle and four pounds in the larger bottles.

They produce about 15,000 bottles of cherry and red apple juice. In addition, they developed cherry and apple culinary sauces that work well with stir fries, marinades or dessert toppings.

Some customers believe it offers anti-inflammatory properties because it is high in antioxidants.

An arthritic Gary feels a daily dose of this juice has helped him cut back on painkillers after fracturing his neck in a traffic accident in 1989.

The product is available online, at farmers markets and grocery stores.

They enjoy the direct contact with customers at farmers markets and local stores.

“It gives them some kind of security knowing that the people who grew the fruit and made the juice are standing right there in front of you,” Sue said.

Orchard work involves pruning trees and spraying cherries, which are vulnerable to fungi and insects. Most pickers come from Quebec for the harvest.

Most of their cherries are juiced to avoid the risks in the fresh market.

They are currently working with an engineer in Lethbridge to look at equipment expansion to increase production beyond 200,000 bottles per year. They also want to add peach and grape juice.

They have had requests for large orders from China and Malaysia but had to refuse because their plant is not large enough but they are considering private investment to take them to the next level.

“We work in such a small space because it was all we could afford to put up when we were first starting. We need to expand desperately. We cannot go looking for new business,” Gary said.

They could work with other growers in the Creston Valley, where about one million pounds of cherries are culled and wasted each year.

“We wanted to be able to give the farmers in Creston another avenue for the culled fruit,” Sue said.

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