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The Sterile Insect Release program has helped them achieve organic production, say Sally and Wilfrid Mennell.

The Sterile Insect Release program has helped them achieve organic production, say Sally and Wilfrid Mennell.

British Columbia’s Similkameen Valley touts itself as “the organic capital of Canada,” with as much as half of its agricultural land farmed in accordance with organic standards.

Hard numbers on the actual percentage aren’t available, but a recent survey by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands notes that the Similkameen is home to the majority of the 133 organic tree fruit producers operating in the province in 2004.

Cawston’s Wilfrid and Sally Mennell, who have 25 acres of orchard planted to Ambrosia, Gala, Granny Smith, Spartan, Fuji and Sunrise apples, as well as a small volume of Bartlett pears, completed certification of their orchards in 2005.

Though there’s a long-standing core of organic growers in the Similkameen, Wilfrid Mennell
said declining prices for conventional fruit have prompted several growers to consider organic production as a viable alternative to conventional growing.

“Relative to what’s happened—the collapse that’s occurred in the conventional market—the organic returns are still significantly better,” he said.

Though prices for an overproduced crop such as Red Delicious are low whether conventional or organic, organic versions of newer varieties such as Gala remain a better bet for growers than their conventional counterparts.

Galas are returning about 16 to 17 cents (about U.S. 15 cents) a pound for conventional fruit, while organic Galas return something more than 30 cents (about U.S. 27 cents).

From a business perspective, transitioning to organics makes sense even though higher input costs account for some of the premium that organic fruit commands. But Wilfrid said transitioning didn’t require the leap of faith that many conventional growers have to make.

Market niche

“It was a market niche I was comfortable with,” he said, though he notes that the transition was probably easier for him than for the pioneers of organic growing. The province’s Sterile Insect Release (SIR) program and the adoption of softer growing practices in the industry as a whole have complemented the valley’s arid climate to reduce the risk of pests and fungal diseases damaging fruit.

“A program that minimizes codling moth is a huge advantage in terms of the establishment of organic production,” Wilfrid said, explaining that everything has worked to create an environment where pesticide and fungicide use is relatively low.

This has made the shift from conventional to organic a lot less dramatic than it was for growers 20 years or even a decade ago.

That’s not to gloss over the challenges, however.

Wilfrid said particular challenges exist in the areas of tree nutrition and weed control.

“There’s no longer any kind of quick fixes. They tend to be a progression,” Wilfrid said. “So, if you’re looking at nutrition, you have to be maintaining nutrition and building nutrition over the long haul because you can’t decide suddenly you’re not getting the growth you thought you should be getting or the response that you thought you should be getting and apply a quick-fix fertilizer in the way that you can with a conventional orchard.”

While organic orchard management is more labor intensive, Wilfrid said it means growers are able to offer steady employment to those who want the work.

“We employ more people over a longer part of the season, because we do have more thinning, and more cultivation than you would have on a conventional farm,” he said.

Workers

Fortunately, workers are often more willing to work an organic orchard than a conventional one.

Ken Randle, lead facilitator of the WorkZone BC employment center in Keremeos, said it’s not unusual to have seasonal workers come to the Similkameen from the southern Okanagan looking for work in organic orchards. Many either had allergic reactions in conventional orchards or are seeking a healthier working environment, he said.

Organic tree fruit production in the valley has increased significantly over the past decade, said Rob Vanderlip, president of the Similkameen Okanagan Organic Producers Association.

“It’s mushroomed. It’s just gone sky-high,” said Vanderlip, who has a ten-acre orchard at Keremeos producing apples, peaches, nectarines, and cherries.

Though organic growers haven’t been immune to price pressures, particularly from imported fruit, Vanderlip said many growers have embraced organic production as sensible practice.

“Even though there is a great supply [of fruit] out there, and some of us do have a problem selling all of our product, we’d never think of doing it any other way,” he said.

The Mennells said an established marketing infrastructure for organic fruit through Cawston Cold Storage Ltd. and B.C. Tree Fruits has also helped them transition to organics.

A trace-back system that allows a retailer to pass on feedback to the wholesaler, and ultimately, the grower of fruit has given the Mennells an unexpected yet welcome insight into consumer preferences.

“You’re a lot more aware of what happened to your fruit,” Sally Mennell said.

To some degree, the awareness mirrors what the province’s New Variety Development Council has achieved as it has cultivated markets for Ambrosia, a variety the Mennells introduced to the world. The council helped raise the publicity of the new variety while providing growers with information that helped them keep pace with demand.

“There’s an interaction between the grower and the market,” Sally said of their experience with marketing Ambrosia, and now with organic sales.

“A greater connection between the grower and the market is going to become much more evident.”