Raj Bagha at his orchard in Coldstream, British Columbia. <b>(Courtesy Sierra Marketing)</b>

Raj Bagha at his orchard in Coldstream, British Columbia. Bagha has used the both the new and old replant programs.(Courtesy Sierra Marketing)

Fruit growers in British Columbia, Canada, have received millions of dollars to replant orchards with new, higher value varieties since the province’s landmark replant program debuted in 1991.

Now, a new version of the program implemented in 2015 is making growers think twice about their farm operations.

Rather than handing out funds on a first-come, first-served basis, it requires a detailed application that promises to make the program more accountable — not just to government, but to the future.

The first year of this new program saw approximately 200 acres replanted, and the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association received applications to renovate an additional 225 acres in 2016.

“It’s done a very good job of encouraging the industry in the Similkameen, Okanagan and Creston area to look at their farms, to look toward the future a little bit and make those decisions that hopefully produce a better economic return,” said Carl Withler, provincial tree fruit and grape specialist with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture.

The time taken to develop a strategy for replanting activities has helped increase the value of the program to growers, according to Withler. Rather than simply dole out funds to replant orchards, the new program helps to match varieties to location and ensure that the program funds trees that are actually available.

“We might have seen in the past where people received funding and planted undersized trees; may have received funding and may not have had trees to put in the ground; may have put trees in the ground and may not have had the trellis work associated with it to hold it in place as it matures,” Withler said.

“Through this application process, review and inspection process, we’re confirming that irrigation, trellis and the plantings are actually taking place, and we’re applying funding to those that have done the work,” he said.

While some growers may find themselves unable to secure trees under the current program, the checks and balances mean they don’t receive funding until replanting occurs and inspection is complete. Payments to growers for the 200 acres renovated under the 2015 program were completed by March 31, 2016.

How it works

The key element of the new replant program is a preassessment process that ranks projects based on five criteria: site mapping, soil analysis, variety selection for location, economics and the overall plan.

Projects with the best scores receive first approval for funding.

Projects remain on a waiting list for funding until all funds have been allocated; this means that if a project is smaller than the grower expected, for whatever reason, funds are re-allocated to projects further down the list.

The system assumes that growers believe in projects enough to proceed without the assurance of government funding.

Replanting typically costs about 22,000 Canadian dollars an acre for rootstock plus C$10,000 for planting, trellising and irrigation, or about $24,600 total in U.S. dollars.

Withler said the ideal application is an Ambrosia planting on 10-by-2-foot spacing (or perhaps a 6-by-14-foot cherry planting), with a government-designed trellis system featuring some form of drip irrigation below and overhead irrigation above.

“We start applying funding from the top to the bottom, trying to invest in potentially better applications and better land works,” he said. “(But) if you could really tell the story, meaning convince the review committee of some market that you have or some advantage that you have found with a variety that might not hit the top three, four or five, those would look pretty appealing as well.”

While the variety of choice right now is Ambrosia, followed by Honeycrisp, Withler said 2015 saw funding granted to growers eying Braeburn for cider production and the early-season Sunrise variety for pollination.

Cherry varieties included Sentennial and Lapins, with some growers also replanting to pear and peach varieties.
Based on the 143 applications received for funding in 2016 (99 of which were complete), Withler expected a similar breakdown. Approved projects are eligible to receive C$3.50 a tree to a maximum of C$7,625 an acre ($5,860 in U.S. dollars).

Raj Bagha of R. Bagha Orchards in Coldstream leases a 40-acre orchard and has replanted 6 acres of the property under both the old and the new versions of the program.

Most recently, in 2015, he replanted 2 acres to Ambrosia from Golden Delicious, which he said was the least-paying variety in his orchard.

Next up is a block of Spartans, which he hopes to replant in 2017 with Honeycrisp.

While the new system has worked well for Bagha, he said the volume of documentation can be onerous for some growers.

“You’ve got to get your soil samples done, your bioassay, what variety you pick, your support system, your irrigation system … it all has to be up to par in order for it to be accepted,” Bagha said.

The steps are clear, but making sure the paperwork is in order is where extension workers play a role.

“They encourage us to come and see them to fill out the application with them because they know what needs to be done,” Bagha said. “They deal with this on a daily basis.”

Withler said consultations with the advisers provide support and counsel many growers have found helpful and of ongoing benefit to their operations.

“Having this time with an adviser and application process, it’s really made some of our growers look at their farms and look at their future,” he said. •

B.C.’s replant history

Originally launched in 1991 to help B.C. growers transition orchards to new, high-density plantings that would help them to be more competitive, the initiative originally aimed to replant 14,500 acres of orchard, or about 70 to 75 percent of the tree fruit acreage that existed in 1990.

By 1999, the province had paid approximately 18 million Canadian dollars (worth about $12 million in U.S. dollars at the time) to growers, with more than 5,000 acres replanted.

A pledge of C$25 million (about $16.75 million) in funding that year extended the program through 2005, with additional tweaks in 2002 that saw more than 11,000 acres of orchard replanted by March 31, 2007.

During this period, administration of the program shifted from the Okanagan Valley Tree Fruit Authority, established in 1990 to oversee the replant program, to the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C., which held funds in trust on behalf of industry. The province eventually delegated authority for the program to growers; today, administration lies with the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.

The latest funding allocation of C$9.4 million will support the program from 2015 to 2022 and brings the government’s total commitment to the program since inception to approximately C$66 million (between $45 million and $50 million).

While the program has long surpassed its initial acreage goals, it remains a key support to B.C. growers seeking to upgrade their orchards and has inspired similar programs elsewhere, most notably in Nova Scotia.

– by Peter Mitham.