Okanagan apples come out on top

South Okanagan growers in the spotlight at National Apple Competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair

Okanagan grown apples captured the top spots — grand champion and reserve champion — in all three categories at this year’s National Apple Competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, Ont.

Okanagan fruit growers were up against competitors from Ontario and Quebec, all submitting their best apples to the competition in five categories: heritage, new and commercial varieties, as well as best collection of any five varieties, and heaviest/most unusual shaped apple.

The apples were judged by John Gardner, a retired apple specialist from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, on the day prior to the opening of the fair, with the results being announced on the first day.

Some names are repeated over and over in the results, like Sun-Oka Farms from Summerland and Gill Farms out of Oliver.

Along with taking first in several of the variety competitions, Sun-Oka also was named reserve champion in commercial varieties for their gala apples and grand champion in new varieties for their aurora golden gala apples. Then to top it all off, they also took first place for best collection of any five varieties.

Winning awards is nothing new for Devin and Janine Jell, the fifth generation of the family to run the 125-year-old orchard. Between 2008, when the National Apple Competition was reintroduced, and 2011, the Jells submitted nine entries, each of which won a prize, for a total of 14 awards, 10 of which were for first place, champion or reserve champion designations. This year’s wins bring those totals to 20 awards overall, with 16 top prizes.

“There’s not much of a secret. It’s just hard work and attention to detail,” said Devin Jell. “We do as much as we can to make sure the trees are healthy and happy and they reward us with good fruit in the fall.”

The Jells’ current wins are far from the first for the farm.

“James Gartrell, who was my wife’s great-great grandfather, won a bunch of awards back in 1897. The one that I can recall him winning for was called King of Tompkins County,” said Jell. Now considered a heritage apple, the sweet King apple was first grown in the early 1800s in New Jersey.

Gill Farms, owned by Amanpreet and Shavinder Gill, fared similarly well. Though they have only been farming their 22 acres for 11 years, their entries this year earned them five prizes including two for first prize and grand champion for commercial varieties.

JMJ Biodynamic Orchard, owned by the Rothe family of Cawston, captured the third grand champion prize, with their winesap taking top spot in the heritage apple category.