An estimated 25,000 bins of British Columbia, Canada’s best apples, produced by a half-dozen B.C. growers, moved south across the border to packing houses in Washington State during the just-completed harvest.

These growers believe they will get more money for their desirable varieties, like Ambrosia, because of a combination of two things. Their cooperative, B.C. Tree Fruits, has higher overhead costs, and it also seems less able to obtain the higher prices the Washington packers can achieve for top varieties. A spokesperson for B.C. Tree Fruits acknowledged the concerns and said the cooperative is working to address the issues.

Good Fruit Grower interviewed, by telephone, Gord Schandler, an orchardist from Summerland, who has become somewhat of a spokesperson for a small group of growers who are sending their apples to Washington. He said the price differential for his Ambrosia is “significantly different.”

Shandler, who is 61 and has been a long-time leader and champion of the British Columbia apple industry, said his motives are to get more money for his apples, “obviously,” but also to make a political statement about the state of the B.C. industry and what needs to be done to keep it competitive.

He aims only part of his criticism at B.C. Tree Fruits, the cooperative that includes some 520 members and handles about 85 percent of the apples produced in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. He also thinks the federal and provincial governments should do more to help the growers.

Marketing arm

B.C. Tree Fruits is the marketing arm of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative, and it offers many services to its growers. It stores, packs, and markets its members’ apples, pears, and cherries. It provides advisory services through nine fieldmen. It sells orchard input products. It operates retail stores that sell locally produced fruit to local people.

That cooperative model is not common in the fruit world in either the United States or Canada, and “it’s considerably different from the U.S. model,” Shandler said. While the U.S. industry has evolved into fewer, larger orchard operations, the British Columbia industry has more, smaller growers, probably because of support from the co-op.

The British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association launched a strategic plan seven years ago to encourage planting of new varieties, improve fruit quality, strengthen its market position, and increase profitability. Some growers responded by updating their orchards; many went out of tree fruit production and instead planted grapes; others did not change. Tree fruit acreage fell from 23,000 acres 30 years ago to 14,000 now, about 8,800 of it apples.

When Shandler was a younger grower, he said, British Columbia growers invested in expensive CA storage systems and packing systems to make their industry a year-round supplier.

“We started years ago to build the B.C. brand,” he said. Now, facilities are older and need to be updated. B.C. Tree Fruits is attempting to reduce overhead by consolidating the packing house infrastructure, closing some plants, and responding to the facts of a smaller industry.

“There are a couple of strikes against our system right off the bat,” Shandler said. “We need to get rid of overhead debt, and we have to help the weaker farms upgrade their orchards.”

He thinks the renewal process is “beyond an individual grower’s ability to make changes,” and thinks more help should be forthcoming from the provincial and federal governments.

He received government help years ago in replanting and regrafting to better varieties, when replant grants were available, but these are gone.

He finds it “annoying” that public policy seems so unconcerned about the future of food production.

Shandler thinks the co-op should de­list some varieties—refuse to pack them for growers. “The cooperative model reeks of one variety compensating for another that is not doing so well,” he said.

Co-op’s efforts

Chris Pollack, the marketing manager for B.C. Tree Fruits, concedes that some B.C. apples are flowing south into Washington.

“We don’t like to see our Canadian fruit move across the border,” he said. “We market our fruit in Canada, primarily. While some goes to the United States and to eastern Canada, much of it is marketed in western Canada.

“We want to keep fruit in our cooperative—the more, the better. But we don’t resent growers who send their fruit elsewhere. We hope they’ll come back.”

Pollack said the co-op is working to help the British Columbia growing region be up-to-date and dynamic. It’s investing in new facilities. It recently invested $2.5 million in new CA storage and new sorting and packing lines at its plant in Winfield. Some packing plants have been closed to consolidate packing in the best facilities, but that leads to some grumbling from growers who need to transport fruit further.

“The field service team works with growers to help them produce the right varieties and the best quality,” Pollack said. While growers still produce Red and Golden Delicious, Spartan, and McIntosh, newer varieties like Ambrosia and Royal Gala are widely planted across the valley now, and Honeycrisp and Pink Lady are making inroads on the right sites. There is still a market for good quality McIntosh and Golden Delicious that are golden in color, Pollack said.

While there are overhead costs that need to be shared among all the growers, payment is based on each grower’s actual variety, grade, size, and quality, Pollack said, so growers are rewarded for ­updating their orchards. “We want to maximize the return to each grower. Accurate grading and sizing helps assure that.

“As a cooperative, our goal is to maximize returns to our growers,” Pollack said. Several closed plants and retail stores remain “on the books,” but the plan is to gradually sell unused property.

The size of the B.C. industry is such that the co-op sells about three million bushels of fruit each year. Last year, with a big apple crop, it sold three million bushels of apples alone, with pears and cherries above that. This year, he expects B.C. Tree Fruits will pack two million boxes of apples.

“The British Columbia fruit industry is not in dismay and is not shrinking,” Pollack said of the current state of affairs. “We’re concentrating on using and maximizing the value of the crop volume we have.” •