After 37 years farming 20 acres of land in Rutland, the Dudkas are tired and would like to retire, but they say they can’t even sell the farm and buy themselves a house to retire in.
Now 74, Antonia says they moved to Canada from Argentina in 1973 where they had farmed for 26 years, raising chickens, because they wanted to move their family away from the constant strife of civil war and revolution.
In May of 1975, Alex and Antonia bought an orchard in Kelowna and moved to the valley with their 12-year-old daughter Catalina and nine-year-old Ann.
At that time, it was an old-fashioned planting of large apple trees widely spaced in the orchard. They’d never grown tree fruits before, so there was a steep learning curve.
“We’re hard working people and we believed if we worked hard we would be paid, but it wasn’t like that,” says Antonia.
In 1976 to 1978 they replanted the old trees to newer ones, spaced more closely together. At the time, they planted strawberries between the rows so they would have a cash crop until the trees began to produce.
However, the strawberries didn’t grow well on some parts of the property either.
The trees grew but the crops were not very good because their land has a northern exposure and it’s open to stiff winter winds, she explains.
Spring is often late and there was frequently frost damage during blossom, reducing the crop at harvest time.
From nearly 4,000 trees of red, mcIntosh and spartan apples, most years they harvested only 100 bins of apples.
In 1991, the crop was so poor, with just a few apples to a tree, that Alex cut down the trees with a chain saw.
“We weren’t making any money,” explains Antonia. “Our net income from 1975 to 1991 was $9,000,” she adds. During that time, they had to work off the farm to support themselves, including for awhile in the packinghouse, on the overnight shift, while her parents looked after the children.
So, in 1990, she began her own business on the farm selling a rich, creamy caramel spread called Dulce de Leche.
“I decided to try something we had more control of,” she explains. So, she bought a small stainless steel pot for $4,500 and began her operation in one of the cabins on the farm.
The new value-added business is called Caramoomel.
She began selling at trade shows to retailers and more wholesalers began buying from them as word spread by mouth.
The business grew and expanded into other product lines such as apple butters, cherry jam, chocolate sauce, vegetable antipasto, hot sauce and later wine jellies, using the produce from the farm.
Where once orchard grew, the Dudkas now grow vegetables, but even then, she says the crop was finished early this year, because of frost—but they have kept seven apple and 23 cherry trees.
Over the years, the production increased and new production facilities were built, with the help of a mortgage on the farm—after going through all the bureaucratic hoops put up by the Agricultural Land Commission and City of Kelowna, she recalls.
In 1993, Catalina joined Antonia in the business, and it is she who designs all the labels and works side by side with Antonia now preparing and preserving the sauces and spreads, jams and jellies, antipastos and fruit butters.
They are proud of the specialty products made from old family recipes and their own farm produc—and the new creations they make using local wines.
Then, the economy tanked and the hundreds of orders dropped by more than half.
Last year, they built an RV park on one acre of the property—a project that ended up costing them tens of thousands of dollars—and another seven or eight acres are in vegetables, but Antonia says 10 acres is on a north-facing sidehill and it simply can’t be farmed.
However, she says they applied years ago to have the farm split into two 10-acre parcels, but the ALC wouldn’t approve it.
By selling off half the farm, they could try and pay off the mortgage and not work quite so hard, she says.
“We’re treading water. We’re getting nowhere. We need to preserve farmers in B.C., not just farmland,” she says emotionally.
“I am preserving the land for the future, but I won’t even have a pension,” she says.
“We never even had a holiday this year,” she adds.
“We’re chained to this land,” comments Alex.