Okanagan apples harvested early thanks to hot summer

Across the Okanagan last week, apple growers issued a call for pickers.

Across the Okanagan last week, apple growers issued a call for pickers.

After a dry, hot summer, apples were ready to be plucked from the trees ahead of schedule.

“Everything is early in the Okanagan this year, by almost two weeks,” said farmer Ken Rieger, from his booth at Kelowna’s farmers’ market. “I have been farming for 45 years, and this is the first time I have ever picked Macintosh in August.”

While getting the crop ahead of schedule may sound like a good thing, Rieger said it can create a quality problem.

“Apples need cool nights so they can get the good colour,” he said.

“And if you are picking in August, you don’t really get the good, cool nights.”

Without the burst of colour that comes from the end of the season, the financial yield of the crop is also lower.

“An Extra Fancy, for example, needs a certain intensity of colour, and if they don’t get it, they get put down to a lower [price] tier,” he said.

Rieger said some farmers are struggling with conditions this year, but for the most part the apple business is on solid ground.

So much so, that he’s been told there are grape growers pulling out their crops in favour of planting apple trees.

That, he said, is reflective of the fact that farmers have to be adaptive.

Whether it’s changing streams of fruit growing, replanting new varieties of apples as they’re released or finding a niche market, innovation is key.

Rieger found his place in the farming world when he decided to go organic eight years ago.

“Until then I was conventional. But I saw what it was doing to the animals and the grass…and I thought, this is not natural,” he said.

“Having thought that, I then thought, what is it doing to me, the farmer, when I’m in the middle of it all?”

When he went organic,  he never looked back—despite the fact it hasn’t always been easy.

BC Tree Fruits used to have a stream for organic apples, but they ended their organic program four years ago and that meant Rieger had to find a different way to get his fruits to market.

“They organic farmer is a fickle farmer, and not a large farmer and the packinghouse didn’t feel having organic fruit dictated the cost of shipping and packing,” he said.

So, he found a smaller packinghouse in Rutland, and the farmers market.

At the market, on a good Saturday, he can sell hundreds of pounds, as can the other handful of organic apple growers regularly there.

“Most people who shop at the farmers market are concerned about what they eat,” he said, noting that creates a faithful following.

And, he added, the organic sector is growing by 10 per cent a year.

“It’s becoming a bigger factor in the marketplace. It’s just a matter of people becoming more aware,” he said. “And I just hate spraying.”