It’s time for a change. That is the thinking currently around the apple industry in the Okanagan Valley, a fruit growing-rich region in BC. “We’re going through a big change,” says Bryan Key, category director with Consolidated Fruit Packers Ltd. – based in Kelowna.
“There are very good growers doing the job in the orchards. And there are ones who aren’t doing the job and the reset is a changing of the guard.”
The reset involves a focusing in the industry on growers producing high-quality local fruit at solid world-market prices rather than contending with growers delivering underwhelming product at lower pricing and undercutting the entire industry as a whole. “There are a lot of good growers out there. But there are also lots of growers not doing the job and drawing down the returns,” says Key, who has worked in the industry for 24 years. “We’re trying to build an industry where a grower says ‘What can I grow for you?’ As opposed to the ones where we say the pack outs aren’t very good and they say ‘Well I can’t do any better.’”
This kind of reset is long overdue given what growers in the region are seeing. “A lot of the growers in the Valley are averaging under 40 bins an acre when our top growers are averaging 80-100 bins an acre,” says Key.
And Key’s perspective is particularly telling. “When I started in the industry, there were 10 million cases of apples in the Okanagan Valley. Now there are 3.5 million cases,” he says. “And why are we seeing low prices? It makes no sense. To me, customer retail demand has never been higher for local.”
It is however a change that won’t happen overnight, says Key. “This year will see some turmoil and I can’t see it turning around on a dime next year so I’m hopeful that the year after we’ll start to see some shippers who have popped up hopefully not make a go of it anymore,” he says. “The transition could be fairly quick.”
Looking ahead, Key has a strong vision of the kind of industry he’d like to see in the Okanagan in both the near future and in the long term.
“Consumers are looking for big taste in just-picked-off-the-tree apples. That’s what we’re trying to get for them,” he says. “And with growers, we hear a lot of talk about breaking even. But we don’t want them to break even. We want them to make money. Because if they do that, younger generations will want to be in the industry.”
Key also adds that this industry revamp is a particularly pressing issue for Canadian growers. “Canadian growers need to make more money because it costs more to grow in Canada compared to the US. Land down there, $15-$20,000 you can buy an acre of land. Up here it’s $150,000-$200,000+ and labor costs more here. It’s only going up,” he says. “As an industry, we need to sing from the same song sheet on all of these things now.”
With an eye to change, Key looks towards other Canadian provinces such as Ontario and the grower model they have in place in its apple industry. “We almost want to mirror Ontario. B.C. was ahead of Ontario doing a lot of this stuff with larger volumes and now they’re bigger than us,” says Key. “They have a few big shippers with good competition—and there’s nothing wrong with good competition because that’s healthy for the industry. It’s poor competition that hurts.”
Consolidated Fruit Packers Ltd.
Picture source: Info Tel