Smoky conditions, worker shortage threaten Okanagan apple harvest

“Frankly, some farmers may go under.”

With smoky conditions in the valley and a shortage of labourers, this year’s harvest season is proving to be a difficult one for Okanagan fruit growers.

Avi Gill of Farming Karma said they’re not quite in the middle of harvesting yet, but they’re already feeling the struggle.

“Ambrosia is our main brand, so we don’t have to harvest until the end of September, but we’re pushing to make sure we have enough pickers leading up to that,” he said.

“I think there will be that (worker) shortage at the end of September… it was a tough cherry season but the apple crop is looking good. But now we have the problem of picking it all in time.”

Gill said even though they’re not doing heavy picking quite yet, the smoke is still a big concern. He said the hope is that it all clears up soon or else they may delay harvesting to help protect their workers.

Sam DiMaria, owner of Bella Rosa Orchard, said the harvest is progressing as well as it possibly can given the current conditions.

“My immediate concern right now is the health of the pickers. The past couple of days, with the thick smoke in the atmosphere, it has been a concern,” he said.

“Some of my pickers have been complaining about dry throats. We took Sunday off because of the thick smoke… and they’re just not able to work at their 100 per cent.”

DiMaria said that during this time, they normally work seven days a week but the shortage and the weather conditions have delayed them by three days and now, they’re trying their best to pick as much fruit as they can. He said at least the smoke doesn’t do much to affect apples’ taste and finish, though he said he is concerned for grape-growers.

Because half of his workers weren’t able to come to Canada due to pandemic restrictions on international borders, DiMaria said he’s been trying to hire local pickers instead to fill the gap.

“But because they’re inexperienced, they may not pick as much as experienced workers. They’re trying their best, but new at this.”

“So the number of bins we’re picking is down considerably. This is a huge concern because fruit will continue to ripen… if we lose fruit on the ground because we weren’t able to pick it, it would be a disaster.”

“The whole apple growing industry in the Okanagan is already on its knees,” DiMaria added.

Gill said the worker shortage and possible delays in picking could be the last straw for some growers.

“Frankly, some farmers may go under… I just hope that British Columbians can recognize that farming may be difficult, but it’s important to our food security,” he said.

“If there’s any government assistance, please just keep a lens on the farming industry, especially in the Okanagan Valley because there’s a lot of trouble here right now.”

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Twila Amato
Video journalist, Black Press Okanagan
Email me at twila.amato@blackpress.ca
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