Storms wreak havoc on South Okanagan orchards

While most of the cherry and apple sector escaped unscathed, some individual growers sustained severe damage

An overly wet spring, coupled with unexpected summer storms is spelling trouble for some South Okanagan fruit growers.

“It’s heartbreaking for some individual growers. That’s kind of where we are at with most of the damage,” said Glen Lucas, general manager for the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.

It’s not an overall disaster for the industry, he said, but some growers have been hit hard.

“Overall, as a whole cherry sector or a whole apple sector, the damage so far is slight to moderate. However, there are individual growers who are impacted more severely.”

Growers with early season cherries, Lucas said, have been some of the hardest hit. Rain falling on cherries during what was one of the wettest Junes on record, can be absorbed into the ripening fruit, causing them to swell and crack. To preserve their crop, some growers have resorted to hiring helicopters, using them as giant blowdryers to dry the fruit out after rainstorms.

“As a group, early season cherries have been impacted most severely of any growers,” said Lucas. “Hopefully there is some crop insurance coverage or they have some late-season cherry production that will moderate. I don’t think it will compensate, but from a complete disaster, it helps to average it out.”

Lucas said that other growers of other fruit haven’t experienced the same overall damage, but individual growers have been hit by some of the windstorms that blew through the valley recently. One of those is Allan Patton, an Oliver apple grower and regional district director for Area C.

Patton has lost a chunk of his Ambrosia crop — the highest-paying apple — to wind damage. Other varieties on his six-acre farm, he said, weren’t as badly hit.

“It really depends on the type of apple and how well they stick on the tree,” explained Patton.

Much of the damage occurred in the tops of the trees, where the maturing apples were most exposed to the wind. Those apples, blown loose, damaged other apples.

“So I lost a fair chunk of the crop on the tops and then they damaged the ones below as they flew down on to the orchard. My orchard is covered in apples now, it’s kind of a mess.”

Patton isn’t expecting any help from crop insurance.

“I didn’t lose enough of a crop to it. In crop insurance, it’s either crop loss, a reduction in production, or it’s quality loss due to hail or something like that. It doesn’t work so you can use both damages, it’s one or the other. That doesn’t work for me at all,” he said, adding that the wind caused other damage as well.

“I have a big tree that’s been siting by the house for a long time. That came crashing down and took out some of my irrigation, and luckily I had just moved my tractor that day, 20 feet away. Just missed my tractor, otherwise it would have been crushed. I got lucky there,” said Patton. “Then I couldn’t get the water on, since I had some repair work to do on the irrigation; it took out my main area.”

It’s not the first year that Patton has been hit hard by the weather. The last few years have included a variety of weather-related problems.

“I am absolutely thrilled if I only get hailed once a year. I have already been hailed once, but it wasn’t much damage. Sometimes I get hailed once and it wipes me out, sometimes it takes two or three hailstorms before I get wiped,” he said. “I’ve had one already, it didn’t amount to too much damage and I am thinning it off right now.

“On good years, I can live off just what I grow here, but not lately,” said Patton, who, in addition to his job as regional district director, has taken to hiring himself and his equipment out. But a lot of growers, he said, have switched crops to grapes.

“Grapes are relatively easy because they just get crushed. You don’t have to worry about hail damage. If it is severe and they break the skin of the grape, then you have lots of fungus problems,” he said. “They don’t have to look pretty. Ours have to look pretty, otherwise you don’t get much for them and we don’t get much anyway.

“I am hanging in there. I like growing apples, I am decent at it, if the weather would just allow me.”