Robert Stearns of Kelowna is cutting his apple trees because he can't afford to replant them.

Robert Stearns of Kelowna is cutting his apple trees because he can’t afford to replant them.

Marc Arellano

During a scene in the film Strange Fruit: A Changing Landscape in the Central Okanagan, Canadian orchardist Robert Stearns struggles to contain his emotions as he explains why he is knocking over apple trees on his 30-acre orchard.

The 59-year-old Kelowna, British Columbia, grower has been working the land for 31 years, but diminishing returns on his apples and consecutive years of losing money have forced him into a desperate situation.

“In the last four years, we’ve got such low prices that we just can’t make it anymore,” he says. “We didn’t even pay ourselves a wage last year. My cost last year was Can.$157,000 and if we make $56,000, we’ll be lucky. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Stearns is attempting to subdivide his property and sell half to keep himself afloat, but, since it’s in the Agricultural Land Reserve, he faces the almost impossible task of convincing the Agricultural Land Commission to allow him to do so. On July 11, he went before the Kelowna city council, and the council voted not to support his appeal, meaning that the request will go the land ­commission without the city’s endorsement.

Stearns says he is removing apple trees from his orchard because they have reached the limit of their productivity and he can’t afford to replant them.

“After 31 years of this, it’s hard to find incentive to get up in the morning,” he says. “My wife and I do all the pruning, we do 90 percent of the picking; it’s a total family operation here. We’re stuck. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t think we can afford a couple more years like this, that’s for sure.”

Complex

In the film Strange Fruit, a documentary by Okanagan College instructor Marc Arellano, the plight of the apple industry in the Okanagan is examined, and the findings were not encouraging.

“It’s a very complex issue,” Arellano says. “It’s the end of an era, the end of family orchards in the Central Okanagan as we’ve known them, because now the farmers have to take a second or third job. They can’t just farm alone; they can’t make ends meet.”

Lee Cartier, college professor at the Okanagan School of Business in Kelowna, has been studying the tree fruit industry in the Okanagan Valley for more than 30 years, and he’s witnessed the decline.

“When I started with the tree fruit industry, there were about 23,000 acres of tree fruits in production,” he says. “If you look at the numbers now, I think they’re talking about 14,000. You’ve seen a major reduction in the acreage. What you have left is a much smaller, leaner industry that is trying to differentiate itself from commodity-type producers in China and Washington State, and they’re also using the most advanced technologies they can in order to make themselves as efficient as they can. Will it work? The trouble with this type of technology is it’s readily duplicated because anyone else can learn how to grow apples with the high-density format as well.

“I think the industry is going to have to evolve, and you’re already seeing that,” he added. “They took a number of steps a couple years ago of a having a comprehensive strategic plan prepared for them. That report was, in my view, on the right track.

They needed to take a look at how to improve the quality, focusing on this ­differentiation.”

Emergency funding

Joe Sardinha, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, has been busy beating the drum for apple growers, urging consumers to buy B.C. brands and the government to help growers financially.

He points out the average price for last fall’s apple crop is 12.6 cents while the cost of production is 22 cents.

“We made more on our fruit ten years ago,” he said in an interview with Black Press. “This is the third year in a row where prices are falling below production [costs]. You don’t have to be a math genius to know this isn’t ­sustainable.

“The current situation puts the industry at risk and that could have a huge hit on the economy and businesses that rely on the industry,” he said, adding that the industry contributes about $200 million a year into the ­valley’s economy.

According to the government of British Columbia Web site, about 98 percent of B.C. apples are produced by about 800 growers in the Okanagan-Similkameen valleys. British Columbia produces about 30 percent of the apples grown in Canada.

However, a drive through Okanagan orchards reveals one “For Sale” sign after another as growers are reaching the end of their credit limits.

“Every place along my road here is for sale,” says Stearns. “Nobody is buying. Maybe two orchards in the last three years have sold. What do you do? I don’t expect to sell half of mine, but if I could, it would at least give me a chance. I know it’s a stupid business, but it’s all I know right now. I’m turning 60 next year; what am I going to do? I’m caught between a rock and a hard place here. Where can I go to work? I’d have to go back to school. I’m not sure that’s going to happen. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I really don’t.”

Creative thinking

Cartier, whose area of research is industry competitiveness, says he doesn’t think the industry is dead in the water, but more creative thinking may be required to save it.

“I think they have to move further down that road of value-added, differentiate their products to add more value to what they’re growing,” he says. “We really need to find the next generation of farmers that think differently, either through agritourism, introducing some form of processing like apple cider or apple jam, or something, and then try to capture more of the value upstream.”

Many people are saying in letters to the editors of local newspapers that the Agricultural Land Reserve, established in 1972 to preserve farmland, is actually contributing to the demise of the industry.

“The ALR doesn’t preserve farmers; it preserves farmland,” councilor Graeme James said during a Kelowna council meeting. “Agriculture is in a crisis and has been in a crisis for a long time. I see it every day; farmers can’t afford to farm.”

Cartier said the establishment of the ALR did its job: it prevented the agricultural land base from being rapidly eroded, but perhaps changes are now required.

“It did what it was intended to do. The issue now is the industry has evolved, the global economy has evolved, but I don’t think the land commission has. So maybe our government masters need to sit down and rethink what the role of the commission is. Is it to protect the land or it is to protect the farmer? Society itself will have to decide what’s in the public interest. If the regulations are so restrictive to restrict these farmers from capturing the value chain to make an economic unit, we’re going to lose it. Economics is an ice maiden: it has no soul, it doesn’t care, it’s a cruel mistress. It rewards those who are economically viable, and it punishes those that aren’t.”