Local orchardist Harry Nagel packages up some fruit for a customer at the Penticton Farmers’ Market. Over the last five years, the tree fruit industry has seen susbstantial growth. Western News file photo

Solid growth in tree fruit industry

Things are looking up for B.C.’s fruit industry, according to census figures released by Statistics Canada.

“There’s a wave of optimism,” said Fred Steele, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association.

The StatsCan census figures show a six per cent increase in acreage used for growing tree fruits and a 51 per cent increase in revenue.

Apple sales brought in almost $51 million in 2016, compared to $37.8 million in 2011. Cherries saw an even greater increase, to over $53 million from $30.8 million.

Over the last five years, according to Steele, the focus has shifted to finding solutions to industry problems.

“I think that that presents a positive view of things right from the start,” he said. “After 128 years, you know, this industry isn’t going away.”

Steele said the growth is from a number of factors, including a strong buy local campaign and replant programs.

“The replant has been oversubscribed every year,” he said.

Another initiative, with the federal government through the Canadian Horticulture Council, will see farmers get help planting bare ground, helping to expand the cultivated acreage further.

“They’re looking at it to rejuvenate the tree fruit industry across the country,” said Steele.

Another factor is protected varieties, like Ambrosia apples and some of the cherry varieties developed at the Summerland Agricultural Research Station.

“Most people don’t realize that 80 to 85 percent of all the commercial varieties of cherries grown around the world now actually come out of Summerland,” said Steele.

Steele said the tree fruit industry has also focused on creating and strengthening overseas markets, like in South Korea and China.

“Thirty million people a year join the middle class in China alone every year. That’s the population of Canada,” said Steele. “With that buying power every year it’s very hard to keep up.”

Steele said the focus is on quality, whether the fruit is being sold into foreign or domestic markets.

“We’re not seeking to compete with the U.S.,” said Steele. “I know people keep saying ‘How do we compete with the Americans?’ The answer is, we don’t.”

Steele said the Canadian’s solution is to focus on a niche market for high-quality fruit, rather than compete with the mass market efforts of the U.S. industry.

“The other part of this is that we import 60 per cent of the apples we consume in Canada,” Steele said. “We’ve got lots of room to replace imports.”