All facets of the Okanagan’s cherry industry have come together to work on opening up new export markets to local fruit.
Okanagan cherry growers and brokers are in China this week in meetings supporting negotiations between the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and their Chinese counterparts to try and break down the barriers to those markets.
The cherry industry in B.C. is growing so rapidly that expansion into new export markets is essential for it to survive.
Kelowna grower Christine Dendy, president of the Okanagan-Kootenay Cherry Growers’ Association, says this is a reconnaissance trip funded by local growers so that ultimately, a trade agreement can be reached.
She said the association met in mid-December with representatives from the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative, the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, B.C. Tree Fruits and the 20 or so private packers throughout the valley to discuss working together on cherry trade and research issues.
It was a very positive meeting, which resulted in unanimous agreement that growers would form an industry development steering committee which will present the concept of a B.C. Cherry Council to industry.
“It’s very exciting,” commented Dendy. “We’ve mostly been focussed on research so far, but we need to concentrate on trade issues now,” she noted, and that requires the cooperation of the whole industry. This evolution into a more-proactive industry needs broad support from all players, she said.
A cherry council, if approved by the agriculture ministry, would be permitted to collect a levy per acre from all cherry growers in the province, to go toward research, education and marketing efforts.
If that is approved by growers, the OKCG would dissolve into it, she said.
Two sub-committees of that steering committee were also formed and began meeting almost immediately. The market access committee is headed up by Lake Country grower David Geen of Coral Beach Orchards, who is one of the growers in China this week.
He is accompanied by Peachland grower Clive Sutherland and Andre Bailey of Creston, a cherry broker.
The other sub-committee is the council development committee which is being chaired by Greg Norton of Oliver.
Dendy estimates there are about 450 cherry growers in the province, mostly in the Okanagan and Similkameen and a few in the Creston area.
While many are members of the OKCGA, not all are and membership is voluntary. About 75 per cent of the growers are members of the co-op, but they only represent about 25 per cent of the cherry production.
She estimates that the industry is worth about $45 million, but no records have been kept up to now because not all growers pack or ship or deal with trade issues through a single body, up to now.
About two-thirds of today’s production is already exported, with half of that making its way to Asian markets, she said.
“That needs to be quality fruit that arrives at its destination in good condition, so we can compete with fruit from competitors like Washington State,” she commented.
An increasing quantity of local fruit has gone east in recent years.
Dendy says no more than five or 10 container-loads was shipped to Asia from the Port of Vancouver three years ago, but last year 100 refrigerated sea containers were loaded with local fruit bound for ports across the Pacific Ocean.
With more cherry production coming on-stream every year, doors to even more new markets must be found.
The federal CFIA is working on other trade agreements around the world as well, noted Dendy.
“As an industry, it’s time we have a strategy to work on this,” she said.
She is hopeful a vote by growers on forming such a council can be completed at the annual Horticultural Symposium in Kelowna March 7.