When Theressa and Dave Ross decided to sell their apples to places other than BC Tree Fruits, they became the black sheep of the local community of orchardists.
“Oh, we went rogue,” Theressa said, with a laugh, explaining that working outside traditional channels was frowned upon by her peers.
But that was six years ago. These days the local packinghouse has nearly half as many members as it did when she made her life changing decision, and Okanagan fruits are more regularly sold through alternate channels. So much so, that the sight of the US apple crates planted in local orchards for this year’s harvest is almost normal.
“Things have changed drastically,” she said.
While she can’t speak for anyone else specifically, Ross said her family’s story is reflective of what many B.C. orchardists have faced. The longtime farmers had shipped their apples to B.C. Tree Fruits for 72 years, through both profitable and unprofitable times, but the relationship hit the rocks when growing started to look like a time consuming and expensive hobby.
“Basically the prices were terrible,” she said, explaining they were getting eight cents per pound. With higher costs, as well as industry specific taxes and fees factored in, it cost them 15 cents a pound to grow.
“Quite often we were getting a bill. So we’d ship them our fruit and we’d end up paying,” she said. “My husband had to work off the farm to support the farm.”
There were also a number of “political reasons” for the decision, but none were as pressing as the financial burden they were facing.
So, for failing to honour the agreement they’d previously struck with the packinghouse, they were “kicked out.”
It was a mixed blessing.
There’s no sure-thing when it comes to income now that Ross has left the packinghouse paradigm, but she’s at last figured out how to squeeze a living from her apples.
“I don’t know where the fruit will go next year, until I get on the phone. We have to be our own sales people and we have to shop around,” she said. “It’s all about where the money is, now.”
In the last two years that money has been found in the US packinghouse system.
“A good 50 per cent of our apples are going into Washington, and then I probably have about 20 per cent going into local grocery stores, then 10 per cent going into our cider,” she said. “Then the rest going into south Okanagan packinghouses.
It’s not just the Ross’s apples that are loaded into big crates headed for Washington.
Kasper Moser runs K and J Peaches. He has a long list of grievances about the local packinghouse, but, like Ross, the number one issue is financial.
So he’s also found more profitable ways to offload his fruit. This year that means piggybacking on the Ross’s shipment, bringing his fruits to their farm so Gold Digger in Oroville can get them.
“Going to the states was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, noting that a few years ago he loaded up his own truck filled with apple bins and headed across the border with his truck teetering along Washington roads.
The deal with the Ross family is much easier on him and he said working with American packinghouses has been informative.
“Americans are straight with us, they said ‘this variety is no good, that’s no good,'” he said.
Now he’s replanted his whole orchard to meet what he’s been told are consumer demands, and he’s done so with very little grant funding—the difficulty he had accessing grant dollars is one more reason for his frustration with the current system in B.C.
Regardless of planting policy, Moser said he’s watching more and more of his peers follow his lead, although it’s still a small fraction of Okanagan growers who have made the leap.
Trucks from the Chelan Fruit Company as well as Gold Digger were rolling through Kelowna this weekend, stacked high with apple crates. The Gold Digger trucks, Moser said, were from his neighbour’s farm, which is one of the largest orchards in the city. In the past, they’ve advertised their interest in picking up Okanagan fruits.
Washington’s apple industry is at least 25 times bigger than the Okanagan’s industry, when measured by productivity. That gives them a corresponding amount of power when it comes to marketing.
That seems to amount to higher sales and better returns for growers.
And those higher returns across the border mean that local farmers can remain farmers.
As Ross pointed out, it would be great to be able to sell her fruits exclusively to local markets, but that won’t put food on her family’s table.
“Packaging, fuel and picking costs are all going up. The grocery wants to buy things cheaper and they bring in things that they can sell for cheaper,” she said.
“Consumers say they don’t see B.C. apples in the stores, and that’s because they don’t want to pay for it. It’s just a cycle.”
The dim view of the local growing environment is not shared by all.
Fred Steele, president of the BC Fruit Growers Association, has weathered good and bad times in the industry, and he thinks there are more of the former variety for days to come.
“People have to make business decisions as they see them, but the last couple of years in B.C. the tree fruit industry has done quite well,” he said. “If it continues to do well, then I think some of those farmers who have left will come back. I think this has all been an anomaly.”
And he’s never viewed southern markets for his fruit, choosing instead to stay with the farmers he knows.
“I believe in supporting the local industry and the B.C. industry because, overall, it’s a better system,” he said. “But people have to make business decisions… I make long term decisions.”
Calls to BC Tree Fruits went unanswered by deadline.