With less than five million boxes of apples to sell, B.C. fruit growers can’t go head-to-head with their neighbors to the south in Washington, who produce 20 times that volume.
The Canadian growers are focusing on differentiating themselves, with the help of new apple and cherry varieties from the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre’s breeding programs in Summerland, British Columbia. Diversification reduces the grower’s risk and helps the industry avoid competing directly with suppliers of commodity varieties, says Joe Sardinha, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.
In the past, varieties from the Summerland breeding programs were made available through PICO (the Okanagan Plant Improvement Company) to anyone in the world. In recent years, PICO has adopted a Canada-first policy that gives Canadian growers the opportunity to benefit from new varieties before they’re released to other areas. Production of the varieties is strictly controlled. Sardinha, who owns an 11-acre orchard at Summerland, believes the club approach is the future of fruit production in British Columbia.
However, cross-border alliances will be formed in order to commercialize some varieties on a broader basis. For example, Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, has an exclusive contract to market Staccato cherries in the United States, and McDougall & Sons, also in Wenatchee, has an agreement to produce a limited amount of the Ambrosia apple with the proviso that the fruit not be sold in Canada.
Sardinha said such agreements are designed to benefit everyone. "That will give them a very good rate of return on the variety, and it’s going to promote Ambrosia for all of our sakes. You’re taking unique varieties and taking the maximum advantage of those varieties in a niche marketing situation."
The latest release from the breeding program is a Gala-Splendour cross called Nicola, which is a large, bicolored apple with a long shelf life. The tree is productive and regular bearing, with a spreading growth habit. The fruit matures after Fuji.
Sardinha hopes that research in the area of fruit genomics will speed up the introduction of new varieties by giving breeders new techniques to identify promising varieties without the need to plant out tens of thousands of seedlings each year and wait for them to fruit. He does not think new varieties will be produced through genetic modification, however, because the market will not accept them.
A recent integration of three of British Columbia’s four major packing cooperatives will make it easier for the industry to handle the limited volumes of new varieties as they come on line. The cooperatives already market their fruit together through B.C. Tree Fruits.
Okanogan North Growers Co-op, B.C. Fruit Packers, and Sun Fresh Growers Cooperative have come under one umbrella with the idea that after three years they will fully amalgamate. The fourth packing company, Okanagan Similkameen Cooperative Growers Association, has not decided yet whether to join.
"When you have that many houses out there for the size of the industry we have, there are probably more efficient ways to store and pack and market the crop, and this is something that will evolve in the next three years," Sardinha said. "We will take a more serious look at our infrastructure and sell off certain properties, and shut down certain facilities so we’re running a lot more efficient industry operation."
The packing facilities have up-to-date equipment and the companies have had cooperative packing arrangements in the past, but the integration will make it easier to handle small volumes of new varieties, such as Ambrosia, where it is critical to deliver a consistent pack to the consumer, he added. "We have the ability to take the Ambrosia apple and bring it to one location, or at the very most, two locations, and pack it so we have a consistent pack."
Producing consistent quality is critical to maintaining markets and premium prices, Sardinha said. "If you don’t do that in this day and age, chances are you’re going to have a difficult time retaining that buyer that’s been loyal in the past."
The industry is also preparing for the time when buyers demand food safety certification. The province has launched an orchard certification program called BCGAP, which is based on EurepGAP and is being used primarily so far by cherry growers who export fruit to Europe. The program is ready to deliver to apple growers as soon as there’s an indication from marketers that buyers are interested, Sardinha said.
"We have the program ready, and it’s a matter of getting the market signals and getting the industry to implement it if needed. I consider that an opportunity to differentiate one’s product, albeit we wouldn’t be the first ones."
The program would be time consuming, would cost growers money, and would be a huge learning process for some, he added.
The B.C. industry has one card it hasn’t yet played yet. A sterile-insect-release program was launched ten years ago with the goal of eliminating codling moth from the province. Although the pest has yet to be eradicated, the program has enabled growers to reduce pesticide use. Though not organic, it is an environmentally-sound production system, Sardinha said. When the industry achieves areawide control of the pest, there will be the potential to use it as a marketing tool to gain recognition in the marketplace.