The great Okanagan farm tour
For tourism, it's a staple experience in Kelowna: the orchard visit. Four years ago, when Kelowna Land and Orchard closed its farm tour doors, tourist guides were scrambling to find a replacement. This week, the Capital News met with Double Cross Cidery and Function Junction fruit stand owners to see just what it takes to start this type of operation up…
"I had to time myself yesterday,” says Glenn Cross, a farmer, born and bred, who is about to start offering tours of his cidery, orchard and vegetable gardens.
“I have to time it so people can try to figure out whether or not it’s worth the money we’re going to charge to stick around and do it,” he says.
The Crosses have been perusing the online comment forums, weighing what’s said about tours in the area and noting, with chagrin, a tipping point on pricing.
Tourists want to pay about $5 a head, they figure, and they’re certainly not considering the $14,000 the farmer spent to buy a tractor capable of pulling the hay-bale wagon or the cost of a farmer’s time in peak season.
Glenn grew up just off Highway 33 on the farm he’s now perfected how to water—every 10 days to help the root systems grow deeper, for those who are wondering—and he’s proud of the fact he does everything himself, including building the tour wagon.
Loretta came along when he was 22 and she was 19 years old. She too is from a farming family—they had Arabian horses—and was up here on vacation when the pair bumped into one another in a bar.
“I was there preaching, trying to turn people around from drinking,” says Glenn, as Loretta reluctantly tells the story of their meeting, rolling her eyes at his interjection.
Needless to say, neither of them will struggle with cultivating the personality needed to host 45 people unloading from a bus into the sticky dust-bowl of our early August mornings to get their hands on some fruit. The pair are used to chatting with customers at the farmers’ market, in the retirement homes they sell at each day and, of course, at the farm’s fruit stand.
Glenn trained in heavy-duty mechanics at Okanagan College, farming a plot off Guishachan Road for three years before purchasing half of the family farm.
In the years since, he’s taken their 50 acres from an orchard growing traditional varieties like MacIntosh, red delicious, golden delicious, D’Anjou and Bartlett pears, to a business with three cold frames to foster fruits and vegetables, kilometre-long strips of corn, fresh-squeezed apple juice production, arts and crafts—oh, and alcohol.
“The chefs like anything that’s different,” Glenn says, explaining why the scrumptious but finicky tayberry made their list of products.
Loretta’s stepbrother was a sous chef at Mission Hill when she retired from the BC Liquor Control Branch to start her own fruit stand. He got them planting berries, their first “garden” crops, and they now grow everything they sell in the stand, picking daily.
Mission Hill brings its sous chefs to the farm annually to get the feel for planting and the pair try to corral the chatty bunch into planting rows straight enough to harvest.
“We owe a lot to Mission Hill,” says Loretta. “They’ve been with us from the beginning and they’re a lot of fun.”
Farm-to-table is a big component of the restaurant industry in this valley and it’s become the backbone of many fruit and vegetable operations. From the high cost of land to hail, co-op rules and trade agreements there’s a lot that dictates a farmer’s success and it takes a diverse approach to succeed.
“Our customers have been good to us,” says Loretta. “That’s who really supported us in the beginning was the community, all the neighbours up here off Highway 33.”
Their daughter was selling in the fruit stand before she could count change—she would ask the customers—and she got the farm into the farmer’s market.
Glenn and Loretta started packaging fruit and going to the seniors’ homes each morning at the request of an administrator in one retirement home who is married to an orchardist.
They bought their juicing equipment from Nicole Bullock at Kelowna Land and Orchard when it shut down and hired her winemaker, Bradley Cooper, to learn to make cider and iced cider.
Happenstance has played a big role in their expansion—though not when it comes to the farm tour. Loretta pondered working with the Central Okanagan’s Economic Development Commission’s agri-tourism program for over a year before signing on. The business planning it took was murderous work, but it was her involvement with the program that ultimately flushed out the tour opportunity.
Kelowna Land and Orchard Company closed its doors in 2010, citing a family inheritance matter. With it went one of the pioneering agri-tourism operations in the area and a tourism staple—the farm tour.
Riding on a tractor, learning about where food comes from, is a big thing in tourism circles at the moment—30 per cent of the global tourism market is education-based—and it speaks to the roots of the Okanagan.
“There’s definitely an interest and it’s a growing interest in Canada,” says Nancy Cameron, Tourism Kelowna CEO.
“A lot of people don’t realize all of the technology behind agriculture. It’s really that education, and done in such an experiential way. It’s invaluable for so many reasons."
There is a dollar figure one can associate with the experience. When KLO stopped its tour, travelling tour groups stopped spending the night in the city, taking their hotel bookings in tow.
As such, the farm tour was at the top of the list when Tracey Fredrickson wrote her business case for developing the agri-tourism support program through the economic development commission.
“We need another working farm tour,” she wrote in bold lettering. “A diversified working farm tour with entertainment during the tours, ability to walk into the orchard, touch and pick the fruit.”
Experience had already taught the Crosses to take advanced bookings for groups—they’ve had a few surprise arrivals and it didn’t go well. They need staff to help people make purchases and time to educate customers on the delicate nature of their product. Loretta calls our propensity to squeeze as we shop “fruit abuse.”
A good farmer picks when it’s ripe and that kind of manhandling ruins fruit, she explains. All the same, they've taken up the challenge.
Their tour will have a family history, product explanations, tasting and translation cards in multiple languages.
Ready to roll in June, they’ll be contacting tour groups, adding social media to their webpage and practising that pitch. It’s a big to-do list, but that’s one thing a farmer is used to tackling. Other than their two week vacation each winter, there’s something to do on the farm seven days a week.