Another dire season pummels apple growers

Labour shortages and an early snowfall leave Okanagan orchard floors covered under a blanket of millions of rotting apples

Apple growers are a dying breed in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and this season is shaping up to be another nail in the coffin.

After three years of low yields and declining prices, producers this year had to contend with the labour shortage from COVID-19 and then an early October snowfall that snapped decades, even centuries-old records in some Valley locations.

Compounding those issues was the summer wildfire smoke at a critical development stage of the fruit.

Orchard floors throughout the region are now under a blanket of millions of rotting fruit leaving apple growers out hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I’ve been farming for 47 years and I’ve never experienced such a miserable harvest like we’ve had this year,” said Sam Di Maria, 66, of Bella Rosa Orchards in Kelowna.

“I feel really disheartened. It really makes me wonder why the hell am I still doing this. We’re supplying good food to the Canadian public, it’s nutritious, it’s safe and for what? So I can dip into my retirement savings every year?

“I’m a die-hard fruit grower but there are other growers who have their eyes wide open and say, ‘well look, it’s obvious this business model is not sustainable,’ so they’re going to look elsewhere, they plant other crops or seek other ways to earn a living.”

Other crops include more lucrative cherries, wine grapes and cannabis.

“I don’t want to disparage the cannabis industry or the wine industry but if there was ever a shortage of food, I don’t think they (consumers) will be able to survive on alcohol or weed,” said Di Maria.

He picked his final apple Nov. 2 but more than 50 bins of unusable fruit still hang from the branches or lie on the ground.

That will cost him more than $10,000 and he was one of the lucky ones. There were others who didn’t make a dime.

Ross Di Maria looks at the apples on the ground at his father’s orchard. | Mark Brett photo

“We’ve lost more this year than I’ve ever lost in the past, mainly because the fruit was over mature because we didn’t have enough help,” said Di Maria. “And you put in all this work just for a sliver of hope that maybe this year you might make a profit, enough profit that you might be able to pay some of the debt you incurred the year before.”

Once overseeing more than 100 acres of fruit trees, he is now down to 32 acres and if he experiences another year like this one, that acreage will continue to decline.

The British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association (BCFGA) estimated the late October freeze affected 20,000 bins of apples, more than seven million kilograms of the fruit.

In addition to the deep freeze, the BCFGA estimated the workforce, largely foreign harvesters, was down 20 to 30 percent from the estimated 7,500 who usually work the orchards. 

“When you’re short, you’re already behind. Mother Nature doesn’t stop; that tree is still ripening the fruit on time,” said BCFGA president Pinder Dhaliwal, who is also a tree fruit grower with orchards in the Okanagan and Washington state.

Like other growers, earlier in the season Di Maria pleaded for help from the local community for pickers and like those other orchardists, found the people who responded lasted only a day or two before they quit.

“I had one grower who had eight local people come out and put all that time into training them and the next day only one of them returned,” said BCFGA general manager Glen Lucas. “Our experience is local people don’t want to work on the farm, it’s hard physical work.

“Growers put half a year of their life into a crop and at the end of it, something bad happens. It’s kind of like their baby, growers will do anything to rescue that crop if they can. They’re attached to it. It’s like part of their soul is in it.”

Madeleine van Roechoudt, who runs Dorenberg Orchards Ltd. just north of Kelowna, was fortunate her crops survived the cold and was able to get enough pickers.

“Still, it was a painful end to harvest really and now we just cross our fingers for some better prices. Right now, they are below the cost of production and we may be looking at taking out some blocks (of trees),” she said.

“When you spend more money growing the crops than you earn from it, there’s not much point, I can’t find anything worth planting.”

Dhaliwal said prices for apples have steadily decreased in the last four years to where producers are now paid just pennies per pound.

“It just makes it harder when things like that happen,” he said. “It costs an average of about 30 cents a lb. to grow these apples and recently we were at 12 cents on average so we’re not even getting our cost of production back. If there is a profit, it is a very slim piece of the piece of the pie and when events like this happen it’s an even slimmer piece.

“Growers just can’t take this too many years in a row and the stress level of farmers right across Canada has gone way up. They go to bed and think, ‘am I going to get that crop off tomorrow? Who’s going to show up? Is the weather going to co-operate?’ There’s a lot of things running through their minds.”

Like other growers, he will not find out what price he is getting this year until August 2021 when he gets his final payment.

Since 1964, fresh apple production in B.C. has dropped to 70,300 tons from 155,000, while it has risen to 2.75 million tons in Washington state.

This year, about 413 of the 8,509 acres of mainly apple orchards have been taken out of production, according to the BCFGA.

While some growers will be able to recoup a portion of their losses through insurance, BCFGA is appealing to the government for help similar to what growers in Washington state received.

There’s something else that Di Maria is adamant about.

“We’re locked into this ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) mainly to provide green space for the public. They (B.C. government) use the old food security thing — we’ve got to have land to secure our food production — and they do everything to restrict us, but they don’t do anything to protect the farmer. If you want to secure food production, the government’s got to have the policies in place that give the farmers a chance to survive.”

The BCFGA is looking at focussing on offshore markets for apples instead of domestic sales.

“It’s not good for food security but people have to survive,” said Lucas.

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