Almost $3 million in government funding earmarked for packing house improvements was announced January 27 at the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association’s annual convention at Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.

The province of British Columbia and the Canadian government are contributing $2.7 million to help modernize the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative’s storage facility in Lake Country, B.C., Member of Parliament Ron Cannan (Kelowna-Lake Country) and B.C. Agricultural Minister Don McRae told growers.

“Through this investment, hard-working tree fruit growers will have the tools they need to modernize their packing house, increase efficiencies, lower costs, and grow their businesses,” Cannan said.

The $3 million investment is made through the federal Agricultural Flexibility Fund (AgriFlex), a five-year fund created to help reduce costs of production, improve ­environmental sustainability, promote innovation, and respond to emerging opportunities and market ­challenges.

“Our competitors are not standing still,” Cannan told growers. “We’re in a very competitive global situation. We have a quality product, and we need to make sure we get that product to the market for the top dollar you deserve. To keep our competitive edge, we need to make sure that the tools you use are state-of-art.”

Gary Schieck, chief executive officer of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative, said the money would be used to improve the controlled-atmosphere storage facility at the Lake Country plant.

“Utilizing a more environmentally friendly, lower-cost refrigeration process will enhance fruit quality and yield to the marketplace, ultimately leading to increased returns to our growers.”

The modernization, which involves using brine water instead of ammonia for a coolant, is expected to reduce total operating costs by $340,000 annually for the OTFC, a grower-owned cooperative with more than 700 members growing, packing, and shipping more than 3.5 million boxes of fruit per year.

Schieck noted that the co-op’s plans, which included amalgamation of four packing houses in 2008, have been in the works for about a year and a half.

“This is part of the process we’re moving towards of facility consolidation,” Schieck said. “We’re looking at a technological shift in our organization. These funds will allow us to get that ball rolling.”

The improvements are expected to take about 12 to 14 months to install.

“This is the start of a bigger plan. We’ve shut down some facilities in the Okanagan, so we’re trying to move ultimately to two or three facilities of lower cost, higher capacity.”

The improvements will utilize newer technology imported from Europe.

“This is part of a big project,” he said. “The project that we’re looking at, to get where we need to go, we’re looking at a $44-million capital expenditure, so whatever funding we can get towards that will certainly help. Our target is to move forward by 2014.”

McRae pointed out that the funding is about streamlining operations to better position B.C. apple growers to compete in domestic and international markets.

“This province is built on a foundation of agriculture,” he said. “British Columbia has been a very competitive province in the world marketplace. Agriculture will continue to benefit from the strength of innovation. It creates more efficient operations; it better positions B.C. apples and fruit to reach domestic and international marketplaces. The investment insures we will put healthy foods on our tables; it stimulates new investment.”