Penticton grower has golden touch

Michel Labelle claims Golden Apple Award during B.C. Tree Fruit Horticultural Symposium

Laurie Navrot

Laurie Navrot

It’s been more than three decades since a Penticton orchard has claimed the Golden Apple Award, but thanks to one enthusiastic grower, it’s back in town.

“It’s an honour, but it’s a team effort. That’s all I can say,” said Michel Labelle, who was presented with the coveted B.C. Fruit Growers’ award during the B.C. Tree Fruit Horticultural Symposium last week.

When Labelle calls this a team effort, he is serious. Labelle, who manages 20 acres of orchards, has five retired orchardists on his team.

“I lease some of the best properties and I manage some of the best lands. So when I lease those properties, I always have the feeling that those orchardists are not done working,” said Labelle. His solution: he puts them on the payroll.

“It’s just an experienced crew, that’s what we have. There is no bruising, there is no fighting, there is just experience. One is 75 years old, on the tractor, certified, no issues, no problems,” said Labelle. “Everybody knows what to do, they have done it. It’s just a pool of wisdom and resources and that is the way we do it.”

Labelle has plenty of experience himself. Born and raised in the apple region of Mont-St. Gregoire, Que., he leased his first B.C. orchards in 1982, not long after meeting his wife Hilma and marrying her in 1981.

Labelle has kept his farming philosophy very simple: keep orchards super clean, work as a team, hire the best people and nurture those relationships. He is also a big believer in summer pruning, a strong nutrient program and monitoring for a pest-free environment.

Combined with modern planting practices, Labelle’s high-density orchards are not only producing lots of apples, the fruit is of high quality and size. Judges visited two of his three apple blocks, including one that was planted in 2010 that is already producing 97 bins per acre.

“The old type of standard tree growing, you would have had to wait five or six years to get that kind of production,” said Labelle, who used a super spindle pattern for the orchard. The other block under review, he continued, was planted using the slightly less dense slender spindle layout.

The Soft Fruit Award also ended up in the South Okanagan, going to Michael and Pat Beulah of Summerland. Michael also began farming in 1982, purchasing 10 acres after having grown up on his grandfather’s Summerland orchard.

With 20 acres total now, the Beulahs grow a variety of cherries, including Kootenay Special, Skeena and Sentennial. They also operate a small packing line on the property, with most of their cherry production destined for export markets.