Wilfrid Mennell

Organic apple grower, Cawston

Find a niche

British Columbia, which produced around 4.5 million boxes of apples this year, is of a scale where it’s important to find a niche in the market, Mennell said, and the one that growers are targeting is quality.

Because of their smaller scale, they’re able to pay attention to detail, and their high-density systems, such as super spindle or espalier, produce high yields of high-quality fruit. For example, they might produce 90 percent high-grade fruit versus 60 to 70 percent from a more traditional planting, Mennell said. "That gives you some advantage."

The recent strengthening of the Canadian dollar, to the point where it is now worth more than the U.S. dollar, means that growers in British Columbia no longer have a currency advantage, he noted.

"I’m in the fortunate situation of being organic and that’s something of a mitigating factor," he added. "It allows for a little bit of breathing space, but I don’t think that will last for long because Washington has such a capacity for production of organic tree fruits."

Joe Sardinha

Apple grower, Summerland

Grow different varieties

Sardinha, who is president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, said the province has not tried to compete on major varieties, such as Red Delicious, but has done well with Gala because the variety is harvested later than in Washington, and colors and sizes well in British Columbia’s cooler conditions. Gala accounts for about 27 percent of the province’s crop.

B.C. growers aim to differentiate themselves by growing apples that are high quality and fall in the prime size ranges, and by supplying a crisp and timely product to retailers, he said.

"We don’t want to be selling mushy apples of any kind into the marketplace," he added. "And we don’t want to be selling tired, old fruit in a new marketing season, as is the case in years where there’s a very large crop."

His personal strategy is to grow the varieties that the Okanagan Valley can grow to the quality that’s being demanded in the marketplace, or to grow some varieties that aren’t being grown in Washington that capture the consumer appeal and generate excitement from the high-end retailer, he said.

B.C. growers are enjoying some success with managed varieties, such as Ambrosia, Sardinha noted, and are doing so in collaboration with the U.S. grower and packer McDougall and Sons in Wenatchee, Washington. Production of Ambrosia in British Columbia has reached about 300,000 boxes.

"These alliances are great because they help build demand and acceptance of the variety in the United States," he commented. "I think the managed varieties are a plus."

Sardinha said B.C. growers haven’t planted a Red Delicious tree in 20 years. Very little Gala has been planted recently, other than some of the more highly colored strains, because so many better varieties are available, he added.

B.C. growers have been planting Aurora Golden Gala, and Nicola, recent releases from the apple breeding –program in Summerland, British Columbia.

Sal Tangaro

Cherry grower, Winfield

Consistent product

British Columbia produces about two million boxes of cherries, compared with Washington State’s 12 million.

Tangaro said he competes by producing large, high-quality cherries that are consistent day in, day out, and feels he has an advantage over larger shippers that pack for many different growers.

Tangaro ships cherries to upscale U.S. retailers, supplying from late July to early September. He segregates his fruit into 9 1⁄2-row, 9 row, 8 1⁄2-row, and 8-row packs and said his customers will pay an exorbitant amount of money if the fruit is consistent from box to box.

Tangaro said competition from Washington just pushes him to be better. "I will compete with them head to head. The way I can survive is to have better quality fruit in the box."

He thinks of Washington as being the General Motors of the cherry world and British Columbia as Ferrari. "Every Ferrari that’s built is sold. Though General Motors is huge, it has to do it on volume, but I do it on quality. You get the customer coming to you wanting your quality."

However, the B.C. cherry market is influenced by how the Washington cherry season goes, he said. "If Washington starts out well, we all do well. If they start out so-so, we’re in a bind. We have to have really good fruit."