B.C. cherries take a hit as weather turns on producers

A worker tends to apples in the Happy Valley Harvest orchard in Summerland, B.C.  |  Joe Fries photo

The apple harvest is just starting but appears to be in better shape than other crops; producers face lower yields but stronger prices

SUMMERLAND, B.C. — Don’t complain to Steve Brown about the price of apples in grocery stores.

Brown said people often see the fruit going for upwards of $2 a pound and assume he has a gold mine in the 12 acres of apples on his orchard in Summerland, B.C. But that’s a long way from the truth.

“I would say the average return to the industry is 16 to 25 cents a lb.,” said Brown.

“Those are actual numbers. I know those numbers.”

And those prices are only for the best, the fruit that has escaped Mother Nature’s wrath during growing season.

“If there’s any kind of defect, you can’t sell it,” added Brown, who produces about one million lb. of apples each year, including ambrosias, galas and pink ladies, on his property about 50 kilometres south of Kelowna.

Some rejects can be turned into juice, he said, “but by the time all that takes place and everyone takes their cut, I still get a bill at the end.”

This year, most of the crop was damaged by hail, meaning the apples can’t even be used for juice because they’ll rot before they can be pressed. Yet the fruit still needs to be picked because it can damage trees when it falls to the ground and create a giant, sticky mess.

“It’s like dumping 100,000 lb. of apple sauce on the orchard,” said Brown, who in 2017 grew ambrosia apples that were declared grand champion of new varieties at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.

Brown’s tale of hard luck is common this year among the 400-members of the B.C. Tree Fruits Co-operative, according to Laurel Van Dam, director of sales and marketing. He said cherry growers were hit just as hard.

The year began with a deep freeze in January that brought unusually cold temperatures to the Okanagan, followed by another cold spell after cherries blossomed in April. That was followed by a rainy June, which caused near-ripe cherries to split and rot.

“So, it was a disappointing season to say the least,” said Van Dam, whose organization has packinghouses, receiving facilities and cold storage throughout the Okanagan.

She estimated the cherry harvest at about 75 percent of normal but said final numbers won’t be known for several months.

On the flip side, prices were strong as a result of the small crop and a shortage of labour to pick it, added Van Dam.

Lower yields and higher prices have also carried over to other fruits, like peaches, plums and pears, she continued, but they’re all merely a prelude to the Okanagan’s main cash crop: apples.

Early varieties like sunrise and ginger gold are being picked now, kicking off a harvest that runs into November in some areas.

“Apples look to be a better story than cherries were in terms of what Mother Nature did to them,” said Van Dam.

“In general, the apple crop actually had a great bloom. Trees were loaded pretty heavy with blossoms…. On average, it looks to be a pretty solid apple crop.

Brown said it remains to be seen what returns will look like because it can take a year to settle up accounts, but he’s encouraged by a new BCTF program that guarantees prices for some niche varieties, like honeycrisp and pink lady, in the range of 50 cents a lb. for “perfect” specimens.

“It’s not amazing pricing,” said Brown, “but it’s better than the last few years.”

What B.C. grew last year

This was last year’s marketed production of fresh B.C. fruit, in tonnes.

  • Apples: 104,000
  • Blueberries: 86,000
  • Grapes: 31,200
  • Cranberries: 30,500
  • Sweet cherries: 21,200
  • Raspberries: 6,800
  • Peaches: 5,600
  • Pears: 5,300
  • Strawberries: 1,200
  • Plums: 1,400
  • Nectarines: 760

Source: Statistics Canada

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