Integration, innovation, and quality enhancement have been embraced as the roads to a revitalized tree-fruit industry in British Columbia, Canada.

A comprehensive, industrywide strategic plan unveiled at the annual B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association convention in Penticton in January was enthusiastically endorsed by most of the 150 growers in attendance.

“I think the strategic plan has unified us,” said newly elected BCFGA Vice President Fred Steele. “We have an industry with so much talent. We have to bring back farmer pride.”

Vancouver consulting firm Ference Weicker and Company prepared the plan in consultation with stakeholders in the industry, utilizing a $75,000 grant issued by the provincial government.

It was nine months in the making and represents long- and short-term objectives for the industry as a whole.

“The BCFGA felt it was important to establish a steering committee that was representative of the entire industry,” association President Joe Sardinha said. “The BCFGA’s role was to initiate and facilitate the process, but I want the industry to take ownership of it. Clear roles have been assigned to key players in our industry.”

Rick Thorpe, provincial minister of small business and revenue, told growers at the convention that the strategy represents a very positive, competitive step for the industry.

“You face a number of major challenges: declining consumption, world markets, land pressures, and labor shortages. But you have articulated a vision for the industry where you will commit to growing high-quality products and to meeting the expectations of the consumers. You’re on the right track to ensure that your industry will survive into the future.”

The plan is based on five pillars: integration, quality production, marketing, human resources, and new varieties.

“The plan sets duties, names responsible organizations, and identifies how government and industry can work together to bring resources to the industry,” said Rob Dawson, a member of the steering committee.

The first steps will be to establish an industry committee of involved organizations and a tree fruit marketing council, both in February 2007, and form a tree fruit quality innovation council by March.

The cost of implementation, Dawson said, “will come from within the industry, with some level of support from government.”

It was recommended that the province’s four cooperative packing houses form a single entity whose activities are closely integrated with those of the Okanagan Plant Improvement Company (PICO) and the BCFGA. Three valley packing houses have already integrated under the banner of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Company.

The long-range quality objective is to improve tree fruit production such that within five years 75 percent of industry production will be in the highest-grade categories and quality will not vary by more than five percent year to year.

To achieve this, the plan suggests:

• Increasing automation in labor-intensive operations;

• Extending the province’s replant program for five years to encourage growers to adopt newer varieties and high-density trees;

• Strengthening and coordinating extension services to promote effective horticultural practices;

• Increasing interaction between the industry and educational and research institutions; and

• Upgrading packing and grading technologies.

To help achieve higher average prices, British Columbia will move away from commodity markets and focus more on niche markets by generating at least 20 percent of its revenues from specialty varieties, specialty packs, and organics by 2012.

Key components of the marketing program are to support programs targeted at B.C. consumers, explore varied packaging, develop institutional markets such as schools and prisons, develop an export opportunities program, and encourage development of value-added enterprises through market research and education.

It was suggested that to attract workers the industry should initiate a worker-housing program that will provide suitable accommodation for seasonal workers, increase awareness of seasonal opportunities among local residents, and work with the federal government to introduce a vacationers-as-pickers program.

Another objective is to be continuously developing and commercializing new varieties.

“By 2015, at least 10 percent of sales revenues will be generated from varieties commercialized within the previous 10 years,” the plan states.

Now

Russell Husch, a member of the steering committee, stressed that now is the time to begin the process of implementation.

“An implementation committee to make it all happen is key here,” he said. “It’s all doable if we have the will to do it. If we’re working together, if we’re innovative, if we’re attracting new growers, we can achieve financial success. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”

Steele said he thought it important that the public be aware that growers are addressing their problems.

“We have to make the public know that our problems are their problems. If we don’t farm, they don’t eat,” he said.

Ian Ritchie, an apple grower from Oyama, said he liked the plan but wasn’t sure it was going to solve the industry’s problems.

“Financially, it hasn’t been easy for us,” he said. “I’m into Ambrosia and Gala, and it cost me a lot of money [to replant]. My accountant told me to get out of the business within the next five years.”

He questioned the effectiveness of finding niche markets.

“Our products have to be affordable, and the returns have to come back to the grower. Are Mr. and Mrs. Public going to pay $2 for an apple they can get a lot cheaper somewhere else? I doubt it. We have to help the grower at the farm gate.”

However, Dawson pointed out that there has been some good news for apple growers in this year’s returns.

“Many growers will make over $200 a bin for Galas and $300 to $400 for Ambrosias. Some growers are getting $800 to $1,000 for organic Ambrosias. They’re getting quietly rich.”