B.C. growers focus on fruit size
Summerland cherries tend to be very productive.
B.C. cherry grower Greg Norton (left) explains his philosophy to a group of international growers who visited his orchard. Pictured are Miguel Vial, Rafael Labbe, and Antonio Walker, all from Chile.
The British Columbia cherry industry is tiny compared with that of its neighbor across the border in Washington State, but it is subject to the same marketing influences.
Last year was a difficult season because the bulk of Washington’s record 19.5-million-carton crop reached the market after the Fourth of July holiday, spilling into British Columbia’s season when prices would typically begin to firm up.
B.C. growers grow primarily late-maturing varieties to avoid going head-to-head with Washington. Lapins, one of the main varieties produced in British Columbia, usually matures around July 19. This spring has been cool and wet, delaying maturity.
In 2009, B.C. cherry growers also had large crops, but most were able to pick and market it and make some money, said Lindsay Hainstock, field horticulturist with the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative in Keremeos, British Columbia. However, they learned that success in the future will depend on growing larger cherries.
“Last year was a hard lesson,” she said. ”Before, we got money for ten-and-a-half row and larger. Last year, you were barely breaking even if you had ten-and-a-half row cherries. Last year was rock bottom for a lot of guys.”
British Columbia has about 800 growers with a total of 4,500 acres of cherries and last year produced a million cartons. This year, production was affected by spring frost and poor pollinating weather. However, most of the cherries grown in British Columbia are self-fertile varieties from the province’s breeding program in Summerland and they tend to be very productive. Grower David Geen of Coral Beach Farms at Winfield estimates that the Summerland varieties will produce 85 to 90 percent of a full crop this season, while traditional varieties, such as Rainier and Bing, will produce only 60 percent. Overall, the crop is estimated at 80 percent of last year’s.
Many of the growers who had large crops last year have pruned harder this season, Hainstock said. “There were people who pruned harder and tried to open up their trees. They realize they had to make big cuts to rejuvenate the trees and get the sun in. A lot of people did come through and make the big cuts.”
Greg Norton, who grows 22 acres of cherries at Oliver, said his target yields with Summerland varieties, such as Sweetheart, Skeena, Staccato, and Lapins, are modest, at four to five tons per acre, because he can produce larger fruit with smaller crop loads. Last year, even in the depressed market, he was selling cherries for $37 per 20-pound carton. He hand thins the fruit when necessary.
“When you’re picking big fruit, you’re making money; if you’re picking small fruit, you’re not. So, I would not want to pick a lot of pounds per acre,” he said. “Being greedy as growers and trying to get tonnage, tonnage, tonnage, and relying on the packing house to make it a good product, is fundamentally a big mistake. It’s won or lost in the orchard, not in the packing house. If you’re relying on equipment at the packing house to make a good product out of a bunch of garbage you’re bringing in, it’s a big problem. My philosophy is: I have to make money on every pound of fruit I pick.”
Although most of British Columbia’s cherries are exported, Norton said he is trying to reduce his reliance on the export market and focus on the Canadian market. Hainstock said there’s an opportunity for the industry to meet the increasing demand for local food. Though they reach the market later than their Washington counterparts, growers in the southern Okanagan Valley are the first to supply Canadian cherries.
An international group of growers led by Susan Pheasant of Wenatchee, Washington, and Mauricio Frias of Curicó, Chile, visited the orchards of Norton and Geen during a tour through Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in June. Look for more articles about the tour in the August print edition of the Good Fruit Grower.