Farmers need to diversify to remain viable today

The Bal family is diversifying on its Highway 33 orchard property, opening a fruit stand/market and cafe on the farm.

Kelowna orchardist Sukhpal Bal and his family have diversified their Highway 33 orchard operation

Kelowna orchardist Sukhpal Bal and his family have diversified their Highway 33 orchard operation

For nearly 100 years, Sukhpal Bal’s family has been working the land in Kelowna, from the time his great-grandfather Bhaghu Singh came here from India because of a drought in the village where he lived.

In time, he began purchasing land to farm, including the 100-acre piece the family owns today on Highway 33 at the end of Springfield Road.

His son, Jaginder Basran ran cattle on the property. He was nicknamed Gindi and was known for wearing a cowboy hat around town.

When he passed away, Sukhpal says his grandmother wanted the youngsters to carry on farming the land.

“Land is precious in India and the family’s vision is for it to be passed on in the family,” he explains.

However, it’s also important that the youngsters get an education, so today, armed with degrees, the four youngsters of Barbara (Basran) and Chanchal Bal still have their hands in the soil, farming the land of their forefathers.

Sukhpal has a BA in international relations and a business degree, while his brother Mandeep has just completed medical school; sister Davinder is a teacher and Dilraj is completing dentistry at UBC.

In order to support all the families—and the farm— they’ve expanded on the orchards that have been growing fruit on that land for decades, and they’ve invested heavily in creation of a new fruit stand and market, Hillcrest Farm Market, along with a cafe, which just opened.

The fruit stand adjacent will open in mid-July when there is enough produce ready from the farm it’s on to sell their own produce in the market, he says.

The family began replanting the old apple orchards to new varieties of cherries in 1998 and in 2005 the decision was made to build a packinghouse on-site.

It has been enlarged several times since and they’re now looking at investing in a new optical sizer, which will increase the level of technology in their packing facility.

They grow six varieties of cherries which mature at different points in the season, so will have fresh fruit available through much of the summer in the market, and they have planted four acres to vegetables to sell there as well.

Last year, members of the family prepared salsas and canned goods which will be for sale at the market as well, and the plan is to display some local arts and crafts.

Old barn boards from his grandfather’s barn have been used in the decor, along with many of the old farm implements such as milk tins and fruit boxes that were found around his grandfather’s farmhouse.

Pastries using the fresh fruits grown in the orchard on which the market sits will be offered for sale in the cafe.

Diversifying further, a former depression in the orchard which was not good soil for growing has been re-shaped to provide a live stage with a panoramic view out over Kelowna to Okanagan Lake. Grass has been planted and landscaping installed as an on-orchard location for weddings or other events.

In fact, his sister Jaswinder Bal’s wedding was held there on the long weekend.

Going the agri-tourism route to diversify a farming operation is not for every farmer, but Bal notes that even 50-acre apple orchards are not economically viable in the current global markets.

“If we can diversify we can make an economic success of our farm. We need to be innovative. Then we can use the income to grow better fruit; to farm better,” he comments.

Today, people want to know where their food comes from, he notes, so they would also like to provide tours for school groups of the farm operation.

“This investment allows us to continue the family tradition of farming,” he adds.



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