Fruit growers in British Columbia, Canada, may still stand tall as leaders in high-density orchard systems, but they can only wonder at the enormity of the Washington apple industry across their southern border.
While Washington growers continue to expand their acreage, many B.C. growers are landlocked and disenchanted by the high costs of apple production coupled with variable returns. In the last 25 years, the area planted to apples in British Columbia has shrunk from 22,000 acres to 8,420 acres today. B.C. Tree Fruits Cooperative, which handles most of the province’s wholesale apples, packs about 4 million boxes annually.
During the same period, Washington apple growers have increased their output from 78 million to 129 million packed boxes and are bracing themselves for a 150-million-box crop in the -not-too-distant future.
During the International Fruit Tree Association’s annual conference in Kelowna, British Columbia, in February, participants visited local growers, among them Jamie Kidston of Constream, near Vernon.
Three years ago, Kidston retired and sold the orchard, which his grandfather had established in 1904. His father took over the operation in the 1920s. Kidston, a geological engineer, worked on a number of dam projects in British Columbia, Greece, Thailand, and the Philippines, before returning to the 40-acre orchard in 1977 when his father retired. Most of the trees were planted 20 or 15 feet apart.
Kidston started planting blocks more densely and in the early 1980s attended meetings of the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association (as it was then known) in other growing regions in the eastern United States.
“That’s where I saw some of those dwarfing orchards for the first time,” Kidston recalled. “It was a mind changer.”
Other B.C. growers were also amazed to see what was possible. They took trips to Europe, where the intensive orchard concept techniques were more advanced. At home, they tried slender spindles, V-shaped trellis systems, and double rows, but the trees would stall because of a lack of vigor. They finally found that trees on Malling 9 rootstocks trained to a super-spindle system, with a couple of thousand trees per acre, would fill the space and generate early yields.
Kidston said adoption of the super spindle coincided with the advent of the Gala apple in North America.
“Not only did we have a better planting system, but we had a better variety,” he said. “When I took over the orchard, 50 percent of the crop was McIntosh, and now I don’t have one Mac tree. Everybody jumped on the Gala thing.”
The super-spindle system didn’t catch on to the same degree in Washington. -Kidston said it was particularly suited to British Columbia because most growers had small orchards. Today, an estimated 1,200 growers farm just over 14,000 acres of tree fruits, making the average orchard size just over ten acres.
“We don’t have those expansive acreages available, so we had to make better use of what we had,” Kidston said. “We’re limited by irrigation—which is the way Washington State is—but we don’t have the plateaus and benches that Washington has to develop on. By the early 1950s, you could say that pretty well everything that was suitable for tree fruits was already planted to tree fruits because of the availability of water.”
In the Okanagan Valley, water comes from mountain lakes and is stored in reservoirs.
The cost of land has been another limiting factor. The very places that are good for fruit growing are also areas that attract well-to-do retirees from Calgary or Vancouver, which has pushed up land values. If you could find land for expansion, you’re looking at a price tag of anywhere from Can.$30,000 to $100,000 per acre, depending on the location and, above all, the view.
“Land is not priced for agriculture, it’s priced for people wanting to live here, so there’s no way that someone can buy and orchard and make a return on their investment year by year,” Kidston said. They can earn an annual income, but they won’t get their investment back until they sell the property.
Apple growers have suffered through some marginally profitable years (often attributed to the might of their counterparts to the south). As apples have been removed, wine grapes and cherries have been planted. The province now has 9,000 acres of wine grapes—putting grapes ahead of apples—and 3,400 acres of cherries.
Steve Brown, horticulturist with B.C. Tree Fruits Cooperative, said those retirees moving into the area often come with plenty of capital and a romanticized notion of running a winery. “That’s been a huge driver, and that’s driven the cost of land up considerably,” he said.
To some growers, cherries have looked like a better bet financially than apples—at least on paper.
Brown said when he meets with a grower who is thinking of replanting and wondering what to replant with, he lays all the numbers out on the table.
“When they see the apple numbers, their eyes become as big as saucers because of the cost.”
A super-spindle orchard is expensive to plant because of the large number of trees and infrastructure needed, such as the trellis and irrigation systems. Many growers say they can’t afford that kind of capital investment.
But when they think about cherries, which might be planted with as few as 240 trees per acre with much less labor, they often fail to factor in the costs of controlling fruit fly infestations, inadequate fruit size because of weather conditions, or losing a crop to rain during -harvest, Brown said.
When Kidston retired three years ago, no one in his immediate family was interested in taking over. The orchard was in three parcels, which he sold to three different buyers. One owner, a dentist, built a house on a small section that has a commanding view of Kalamalka Lake, while the others weren’t ready to build yet.
All three were wondering what to do with the rest of the orchard in the meantime and agreed to lease it to Jo Bagha, who had worked for Kidston for about 15 years, and his 26-year-old son Rajan, who had been working as a carpenter.
Kidston said he’s mentoring the Baghas, just as his father mentored him when he came back to the orchard. Kidston had worked in the orchard when he was young but never pruned because he was at school during the winter.
“That was the one thing I didn’t know, was pruning,” said Kidston, who came to realize that pruning is an art. “I enjoy pruning because you’re training the tree and setting it up to make it crop, and looking after it, and every tree is a little bit different,” he said.
During an the IFTA tour stop at the orchard in February, Kidston and Dr. -Terence Robinson, horticulturist at Cornell University, New York, got into a lively debate about pruning techniques. Kidston welcomed it. “He’s pointed,” he said of Robinson, “but a lot of what he says is to make you think.”•