Problems crop up for South Okanagan cherry growers

Naramata grower estimates he left 100,000 pounds of fruit to rot on the trees

Updated Friday, August 10

Cherry growers in the South Okanagan are being hit hard this year, first by rain, wind and sun, and now by low prices when they try to market their fruit.

Some growers, like Jake Van Westen of Naramata, have stopped picking, abandoning the fruit to rot on the tree. With 60 acres of cherries in production, Van Westen estimates he has left 100,000 pounds on the trees.

Westen said his fruit is of good quality and size, but overall sales through the co-op and their marketing arm, B.C. Tree Fruits, have been affected by lower quality fruit put into the system by growers farther south, whose early season production was hard hit by variable weather and storms.

“Down south had a disastrous start, Oliver and Osoyoos, and since we belong to a co-op system, we are all stuck together,” he said. Right now, Van Westen said the co-op isn’t even able to estimate what price they will be able to get for cherries.

“They don’t have a clue what’s going on. They have sold a lot of cherries and the buyers have complained, so there are claims and that is a bunch of negotiating,” he said. “It could be 20 cents a pound to the grower. It takes 70 cents to break even.

“I am not going to work and lose money. I probably left 100,000 pounds on the tree. That’s my income. I have apples, but over the last five years, you lose money on apples.”

Gary Schieck, CEO of B.C. Tree Fruits and the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-op, said growers were given an indication of the returns they could expect from their crop, though they may not have like the message.

On Aug. 1, Schieck said, B.C. Tree Fruits advised the growers of how many cases they expected to ship that week, as well as the range the fruit was selling for.

We would like to see the returns better than they are too. We gave them and indication of what to expect, and at the end of the day, they said we don’t like the message,” said Schieck. “I can’t help that, we don’t like it either.”

No picking also means a loss in income for the many seasonal pickers that travel through the Okanagan, working their way from crop to crop. Van Westen is already planning to sell his crop independently next season, bypassing the co-op system and B.C. Tree Fruits, which he said is struggling.

“Maybe B.C. Tree fruits has turned their name into mud, that’s what I am starting to think. They are the only ones who can’t sell cherries,” said Van Westen. “All the independents are selling cherries left, right and centre.”

“I think the domestic market is very, very, very oversupplied and prices are very poor,” said Greg Norton, an independent Oliver grower. He relies on export markets for his sales, but has still been hard hit by the weather. “I am still picking, we are exporting most of our stuff.

“We are finding some good sales along the way. But the western Canadian market, which is primarily the packing house’s market, it’s a real stinker.”

Schieck admits it can sometimes be a cruel market, and this season is far from what B.C. Tree Fruits would have preferred to see, starting with the weather.

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

Part of the problem, according to Van Westen, is a flood of cheap U.S. cherries forcing prices down in  B.C. Tree Fruits’ main marketing area.

“They’ve been planting thousands of acres over the last 10 years. They probably grew a lower quality, smaller cherry this year, and since we are simple to access, thanks to free trade … we’re getting absolutely hosed this year,” said Van Westen. “They grow their cherries for up to half of  what we can thanks to labour costs, land costs, fuel costs. Everything is cheaper down in the States, and they are subsidized.”

Norton agrees there is an over abundance of fruit on the market, due to growers in Washington state dumping fruit at low prices.

“They had a lot of cheap, poor-quality stuff. No question about it, that had a negative impact on our market. But that’s not a new story, that’s ancient news, that’s been the way it’s been forever,” said Norton, who is coming off his best year ever.

But even on a bad year, Norton said there are some positive signs. B.C. Tree Fruits may be having trouble selling the amount of cherries they have in previous year, but Norton said independent growers are seeing support for Canadian fruit.

“We are still seeing the Canadian consumer supporting Canadians,” he said. “Some of our buyers out there are saying to hell with the American stuff, we want Canadian. That’s really encouraging.”

Schieck said that B.C. Tree Fruits is also seeing support for Canadian product, but sales seem to be down at retail, resulting in less cherries moving through the market.

“We have lots of buyers, the sales volume is below what we would want it to be. We sell to every major retailer in Western Canada, but we could use more volume,” he said.