Falling prices deliver a blow to Okanagan cherry growers

B.C. Tree Fruits CEO says cherry growers were warned of the weak market conditions

The CEO of B.C. Tree Fruits said they have been as up front with cherry growers as possible, though the growers may not like the message they have been receiving.

With cherry prices falling below the break-even point, some South Okanagan growers have simply stopped picking the fruit, leaving it to rot on the trees rather than lose more money on the crop.

“There were slow sales at retail, then you have a record crop out of Washington and we have a large crop,” said Gary Schieck, B.C. Tree Fruits CEO. “We don’t know what their (growers’) expectations are about pricing, but we are just trying to tell them here is what is going on right now.”

Schieck said that since the beginning of August, the fruit marketing arm of Okanagan Tree Fruits Co-operative has sent out three communications to growers, including one specifying the range of  return they could expect for their fruit, depending on market conditions.

“It is not a strong market,” said Schieck. “We said how many boxes we were shipping, and based on the current pricing, here is what the returns are.

“If you don’t have the quality, be forewarned. Even then you may not be happy with the price.”

The memos included, Schieck said, one sent out on Aug. 8, saying prices are starting to strengthen after a disastrous start to the season, with a range of weather damage resulting in lower quality fruit coming off the trees for growers in the Oliver-Osoyoos area. Combined with a large crop in other places, the result was a weak market.

“It can be a cruel market. There were quality issues, there were pricing issues, and they are all compounding here,” said Schieck. “If you had exceptional quality right out of the gate, sales were good, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But you have all these compounding effects that really work against extracting a lot of money out of this crop.”

Schieck said they are selling to their regular list of buyers, which include every major retailer in Western Canada. However, while B.C. Tree Fruits has moved a significant quantity of cherries, buyers were not ordering as high a volume of the fruit as in previous years.

Growers that are members of the co-op are under contract to deliver a certain amount of fruit to packing house, but considering the low returns, Schieck said they also advised growers that if they have good quality cherries and think they can find an export market for them, the co-op would be lenient.

“We also said in our communication, that if guys can find another home for their fruit, we are not going to penalize them. We’re not trying to be ogres here,” he said. “We did not tell them not to pick.”