Challenges bring opportunities to Okanagan growers

OLIVER, B.C. — Access to a reliable labour force and ever increasing production costs have challenged British Columbia fruit growers in recent years, but a proliferation of wineries in the south Okanagan Valley has also presented opportunities.

Heide Held operates Hillside Orchards U-Pick and Farm Market with her parents, Guenther and Mary, near Oliver.

The 20-acre land base was once larger but was reduced five years ago for financial reasons in a region where an acre of farmland can sell for $100,000.

“The price of fruits doesn’t go up, but the cost of production keeps going up,” said Heide, who conceded she couldn’t have farmed without support from her parents, her two teenagers and Farm Credit Canada.

The family has moved to retail from wholesale markets and have diversified by producing dairy goats, beef cattle, chickens and turkeys.

Due to labour challenges, they now mainly count on the family to manage orchards of cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and apples and diverse vegetable gardens.

They use overhead irrigation on fruit trees and drip irrigators on ground crops to prevent evaporation and conserve water.

“The only issue we have with drip irrigation is ours is very heavy in algae because our regional district doesn’t filter it, so we have to install filtration systems on every line,” said Heide.

Other challenges include theft of fruit from their orchards butting up against the valley’s main north-south highway.

“We just keep positive and keep plunking away. It’s got to get better,” said Heide.

Guenther was only five when his family, armed with horticultural expertise but without any farm equipment, moved to Canada from Germany after the Second World War. A bout of meningitis as a child left him hard of hearing.

Mary, like Guenther’s mother, worked off farm in the local packinghouse to support the farm. In addition to raising three children, Mary worked at a senior’s home.

“I don’t know how I did it,” said Mary, who now helps with thinning, picking, pruning and customer service.

Guenther operates machinery, including a rotavator, mower and fertilizer spreader, and handles the fieldwork, spraying and excavation work.

Heide oversees the animals and garage-cum-farm store and Facebook page. An artist, she also paints her own promotional signs.

The family says the Helds have always chosen to remain in farming for the lifestyle it offers.

“You’re independent, your own boss. You grow your own food so you know you won’t starve,” said Mary.

Added Heide: “It’s never dull, not a repetitive job. There’s always something different. You never know what you will end up with in a day.”

Their orchard rises sharply into the hills behind their two homes, allowing Guenther to pursue his love of hunting.

Mary said the ups and downs come with the job of farming.

“If you figure you will have a smooth life, it’s not going to happen,” said Mary, whose own parents farmed after moving from Austria and Hungary.

Heide’s ambitions of increasing farm income by expanding the farm store to a year-round enterprise that includes a deli, bakery items and Christmas trees is hampered by the availability of labour and capital.

“I’ve gone with my gut instinct. I see potential for growth,” said Heide, who conceded adding fencing and a larger store could cost $200,000.

“If you don’t have the manpower, you might as well forget it,” said Mary.

Still, Heide sees opportunities to sell more produce in an area that has become saturated with vineyards at the expense of the bounty of fruit and vegetables that once grew here.

“There is not a lot of competition for this,” she said.

The Helds are happy with their U-pick and store operations, citing the hundreds that visit here during their season from June to October. In addition, the Helds’ yard offers camping sites that have been well used for large groups.

Heide called the farm a gathering place.

“It’s a big thing to share the farm life with people, my family roots and history,” she said.

“There’s lots of blood, sweat and tears. There is always rewards.”

Added Mary: “It’s in our background.”

The Helds were set back this year by Heide’s house fire in January, which caused $90,000 in damages. Forest fires a year earlier came to the orchard’s perimeter, leaving the Helds to fight it alone with sprinklers and hoses.

“We survived and told those affected to come to pick and can (make preserves),” said Heide.

The Helds said the community has changed much from the days when neighbours worked together.

The practice by some in undercutting prices to sell off excess fruit hurts all growers, they agree.

“We all have to stand together. We all work to pay bills to feed our families. We need to have the same price,” said Heide.

The farm sends its excess fruit to Okanagan Gleaners in Oliver to dehydrate for the developing world with donations also given to local schools.

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