The Okanagan’s apple harvest is in full swing but after a record-breaking heat wave that hurt crops, struggles to get a fair price from retailers, and a workforce diminished by the pandemic, farmers may have already had their fill of the season.
Glen Lucas, the general manager with the BCFGA, said farmers are finishing up picking gala and Macintosh apples and Ambrosias will soon come down. It’s the culmination of a lot of work and many are hoping it will have been worth it.
Labour was the first hurdle of the season. For larger farms, the work is being done through those who were able to come to the Okanagan through the seasonal agricultural worker program, which brings in workers from Mexico and the Caribbean.
“The first year getting workers under COVID-19 (restrictions) was a real scramble, and in the second year it started off almost a normal year,” Lucas said.
“Then the travel rules changed and that threw a real wrench into things. As a result, we got 80 to 90 per cent of the workers expected.”
The situation was even worse on small-scale farms where foreign workers aren’t used due to an inability to meet minimum hour requirements. They rely on a mix of local labour, French Canadians, and even International backpackers, all of whom were in short supply this year.
“French Canadians have been diminishing in numbers already. Now (because of the pandemic) they drive, instead of fly, and they don’t get around by hitchhiking, so that’s an issue,” he said.
“And CERB, and low unemployment rates, meant there were many other opportunities for people.”
Significantly reduced international travel put a stop to the backpacker pool of labour.
“(Farmers have) been scrambling and they’ve had to have their families come in for long hours, seven days a week and it’s been tough on them,” Lucas said.
“There’s really been pressure to get all the crop off. …. It’s been a scramble. “
Once the apples are off, the price offered isn’t always ideal.
“We do have some problems with our consolidated retailers and are addressing that by trying to push through a retailer code of practice so there’s more transparency and fairness with massively consolidated retailers in Canada,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the end result is a reduction of apple acreage in the Okanagan, which over the last three years has been pegged at 15 per cent.
“Previously, we were growing,” Lucas said.
“We had a slow decline over many decades and then for the first time we had a levelling and slight increase in apple (acreage) for a couple of years for a row. “
Then there were “three years of brutal circumstances.”
In turn, old apple orchards started sprouting cherries and wine grapes, while other orchards were just left to go fallow.
It’s a loss that Lucas said won’t easily be replaced. It takes five years for a tree to start bearing fruit worth farming, and if demand increases, there will be a lag.