Since Monday, Jeff Bryde has been conducting a hunger strike outside the B.C. Tree Fruits offices in Kelowna, protesting their practice of importing some of the fruit they market from outside the country.
But his employer, the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative, which also owns B.C. Tree Fruits, is puzzled by Bryde’s actions over a practice that has been going on for decades.
Bryde has been suspended from work twice after writing letters to the Kelowna Capital News complaining about B.C. Tree Fruits sourcing fruit outside the country, which he feels flies in the face of campaigns by the B.C. Fruit Growers Association to encourage consumers to buy locally grown fruit. In the latest letter, which earned him a five-day suspension, Bryde pointed out that B.C. Tree Fruits is importing Gala apples from Washington state even as the same apples are just coming off local trees.
“This has never happened before at the start of a season,” said Bryde, who acknowledges that B.C. Tree Fruits often finds other sources of fruit when the packing house runs out of inventory. In the same letter, however, he said the company should not be importing Washington state apples “under any circumstances” when they are under the same umbrella as the BCFGA.
“He has an issue with it when we do it at the start of a season but it’s OK at the end of the season,” said Kelowna orchardist Jim Eliot, who chairs both B.C. Tree Fruits and the OTFC. “Jeff has been spreading some erroneous information.”
There was a time when the BCFGA, a lobby group and a producer association, owned B.C. Tree Fruits. However, it is now owned completely by the OTFC, which is the main conduit for processing and marketing fruit grown in the Okanagan. It, in turn, is owned by the some 800 grower shareholders.
Eliot is mystified as to why Bryde is trying to make an issue of a practice that he said has been going on for many decades and only accounts for about two per cent of the amount of fruit they market.
It is unusual for them to source fruit at this time of year, Eliot admits, but a late start to the harvest coupled with the success of the BCFGA’s campaigns meant there was a high demand for fruit that they couldn’t meet.
“We are getting an unprecedented level of support from consumers and retailers right now, driven by consumer desire to both eat more fresh fruit and buy local,” said Eliot, who added that the fruit being picked from local trees takes several days to shed the heat of the fields and make its way through the processing chain.
“B.C. Tree Fruits needs to be sure their retailers are not without fruit, so they don’t go looking for other suppliers,” he said. “As soon as our fruit is available, we stop sourcing product. If we lose that sale, they will go elsewhere.”
Sourcing the fruit needed to cover breaks in their own supply chain means B.C. Tree Fruits gets to switch back to shipping local fruit when they have product available, rather than leaving that decision to the retailers.
“We would not sell a box of fruit that jeopardized a local sale. That’s why it’s a plus for the industry and for the growers,” said Eliot, adding that employees like Bryde also benefit, as the lines are kept running with the continuous supply of fruit.