Dismal prospects for B.C. cherries
An April freeze devastated the crop.
Doug Needham of Dendy's Orchards in Kelowna, British Columbia, examines a cherry tree for frost damage.
Canadian cherry growers were bracing for a dismal crop this year after an arctic blast in April severely damaged blossoms throughout the Okanagan Valley.
Greg Norton, chairman of the Okanagan Kootenay Cherry Growers' Association, said the damage appears to be widespread, even though some areas, particularly near Kelowna, were harder hit than others.
Temperatures that tumbled to record lows in early and mid-April appear to have impacted at least half of this year's crop, and the prognosis was worsening as harvest season approached.
"We are seeing a fairly devastating June drop," said Norton, who has a 40-acre cherry orchard in Oliver. "I would be happily surprised if we get a 50 percent crop this year. I'm honestly not surprised. When you have a major frost event, you have to expect to see negative side-effects."
Hank Markgraf, field services manager for the Okanagan Tree Fruit Company, said this was the worst frost he has ever seen.
"I've not seen it this bad before in my 25 years of experience. Not like this, not this late, not valleywide like this."
The villain for most of the region was a series of consecutive nights of freezing. While night-time temperatures were lower than usual, daytime temperatures were the lowest ever recorded in Penticton (67 years of records), Kelowna (40 years of records), and Vernon (108 years of records) for April 19 and 20; and lowest average temperature for the month of April for Kelowna and Vernon.
It was different than a normal frost, said Christine Dendy, who grows 75 acres of cherries with husband Hugh in East Kelowna.
"It was below freezing for 12 hours at crack. It was a longer period of cold."
Dendy has been farming here for more than 50 years and says she has never seen such extensive spring frost damage.
"It's certainly the worst I've ever seen in my career in cherries and in my life," she said. "It's quite mixed but there is some pretty extensive damage [in some areas]. It's close to 50 percent."
David Geen, proprietor of Coral Beach Farms in Carr's Landing, whose 170-acre cherry orchard is the largest in the Okanagan, also said it's the most widespread damage he's seen in the 17 years he's been at his present location just north of Kelowna.
"We're certainly going to have a light crop," he said. "All my trees are impacted to a greater or lesser degree. I would say in my location, particularly, it's the worst I've seen since I started farming here in 1990."
Normally, Coral Beach's location near Okanagan Lake tends to moderate freezing temperatures, but this spring the opposite occurred.
"The damage was the result of strong winds along with that arctic front," Geen said. "In a normal frost event, the lake is to our benefit. This time it wasn't."
Norton said most of the damage in the South Okanagan actually occurred earlier in the month.
"The April 19 to 21 frost didn't bother us; it was earlier in April that got us here."
Norton said he had peaches and plums "that were virtually unscathed." He knew he would have a cherry crop, but wasn't optimistic it would be anywhere near normal.
"You do your best with all the tools that are available," he said. "What we did, we went out and turned the water on to try and get some moisture out there. If you have a low dew point, your chances of damage increase. We have wind makers that we fired up as well."
He said it just goes to show that growing cherries isn't for everyone.
Not for the faint of heart
"It's not for the faint of heart, let me tell you. You have to have a certain mentality to rely solely on cherries. When you get a good year, cherry growers are careful about putting money away to weather the next storm."
Cherry harvest usually starts in late June in Osoyoos, and works its way north. By the third week of August, the harvest is usually finished throughout the valley.
About 2,500 acres are planted in cherries in the interior of British Columbia, and average production is slightly more than six million pounds.