South Okanagan wineries continue to grapple with tasting room closures and worker shortages. Pictured above is Khamfong Srisroi, a Thailand native who has been working in Canada for 15 years. Many of these years have been spent working for Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira. (Phil McLachlan - Western News)

South Okanagan wineries grapple with tasting room closures, worker shortages

As growing season begins, worker shortages due to COVID-19 have also challenged fruit growers

Some South Okanagan wineries continue to grapple with tasting room closures and workers shortages due to COVID-19.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic an order has been in place prohibiting wineries from serving wine, however, they have been able to continue selling it.

Local wineries said in conversation with the Western News that the tasting room accounts for between 35 and 75 per cent of their annual revenue. Closures due to COVID-19 have, as with many other businesses, put them on the edge.

“We’re in deep, deep trouble,” said Quinta Ferreira owner, John Ferreira. “Especially if this COVID thing keeps our wine shops closed, where do we get the money from?”

Wineries have been promoting online sales since tasting rooms closed but this hasn’t been working for all businesses.

READ MORE: COVID-19: One in five non-profits in B.C. at risk of closing

Quinta Ferreira, a family-owned winery located in Oliver, is a smaller-scale business which relies heavily on tasting room visitors. Ferreira said it accounts for 75 per cent of their revenue. They have been producing fruit since 1979 and wine since the turn of the century.

“People that are out there, they kind of stick to their wine club, so they don’t venture into others. So if you don’t have a big wine club, like the big outfits, we can’t compete with the big outfits, we’re in deep, deep trouble.”

Ferreira called upon the B.C. government to further assist farmers through the summer.

“That’s basically the only way that’s going to keep us going,” he said. “Is if they cover us for the 75 per cent of our labour. Because we’re not getting any money. We send out the odd case here and there, but it’s not enough to cover the expenses.”

Just around the corner, Ferreira said growers will have to start bottling, which means a further investment to purchase the bottles.

“And where’s the money?” he questioned.

It’s mid-May and most wineries are either suckering, trimming focused on removing unwanted leaf growth, or planting new vines.

As the growing season has begun, worker shortages due to COVID-19 have also challenged fruit growers.

For Ferreira, his regular workforce of year-round workers helps, but only accounts for about 50 per cent of his workforce. Right now he has five workers, but said he could use 10.

The Oliver winery relies heavily on seasonal workers to make up their workforce, and May is usually the month they start to arrive in town.

“And I don’t see too many of them around,” said Ferreira.

The Loose Bay Campground, a seasonal facility catering to mainly agricultural workers in Oliver, is open for the summer and accepting visitors who must be assessed before entering the premises.

READ MORE: COVID-19 precautions and testing in place for Loose Bay campers

Although the Western News was not able to gain access to the campground, several cars, including some from Quebec, were seen arriving at the site last week. It is unknown how many are currently staying there.

“Agriculture in the South Okanagan is key to food security, and economics in the area,” said Oliver mayor Martin Johansen.

Farmers having the ability to get their crops harvested in a timely manner, when they’re ripe, and get them handled appropriately by motivated people who know what they’re doing, he said is invaluable.

“Workers coming here, whether it’s foreign workers coming from Mexico, or domestic farm workers coming from other provinces, they’re key to the whole process working, and key to the economic stability in the whole South Okanagan.”

Sukh Bajwa, owner of Eau-Vivre winery in Keremeos, said they also rely heavily on walk-in traffic to make ends meet.

Sales on shelves have been challenging as well. A smaller, newer winery to the area, Bajwa said many consumers tend to choose the product of a more well-known winery, over his.

In their third year of operation, the business is focusing on new ways to promote their name and prepped hard to make 2020 their best year yet, but when COVID-19 hit, it took the wind of their sales.

Asked what the key to recovery is, Bajwa said they will simply have to, “ride the wave.”

“Hopefully tasting rooms will open soon, I’m hearing positive feedback on that. And then hopefully people will support us,” he said.

With wineries being closed for two months, Bajwa theorized that reopening could bring with it a wave of support from the community.

“Maybe we’ll be better off by the end of the year, or maybe we won’t be… we’ll just have to brace ourselves and hope that we are doing the right stuff, just wait and see,” he said.

Despite challenging financial times, Bajwa said he supports the governments decision to shut everything down.

“I support the decision that they did shut everything down,” he said.

By the same token, Bajwa said that some believe it was an overreaction.

“You can’t really say much about it, I think our government did the right thing, we just have to work with it.”

He said we will never know the alternative result, and for this, he’s glad.

“I’m so glad that we will never know about it, it could have been way worse, or it could have been nothing. That’s something that I don’t even want to know,” said Bajwa.

Part two of this multi-part series on the state of wineries in the Okanagan will follow in coming days.

READ MORE: COVID-19: B.C. schools to begin part-time class instruction June 1

@PentictonNews
editor@pentictonwesternnews.com

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