Pits for cherry pickers
Aug 3, 2012 / 4:17 pm
In early August, Naramata’s orchards are typically full of young people scaling ladders to pick cherries, but that all changed in recent days.
One of the biggest fruit growing families, the Van Westens, laid off as many as 70 workers on Thursday after learning they were going to be paid less than the cost of harvesting for the popular fruit.
“You go by the orchards and they are like ghost towns with all the ladders and buckets piled up,” said Rob Van Westen. “It’s a tough year for everyone, even the private growers.”
Van Westen said just prior to the layoffs he and other members of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative received notification they would only receive 40 to 45 cents a pound for cherries.
Usually they get $1 a pound from the packing house.
The dire situation is mainly due to an oversupply on the market, basically Washington bringing its bumper crop into Canada at $15 a box, plus a lot of mismanagement at the co-op, he said.
“They were accepting marginal quality fruit, mainly Oliver and Osoyoos cherries that were just garbage, and putting inferior fruit on the market which impacts buyers,” he said.
Most of the pickers working for Van Westen, who has five acres, and Jake Van Westen, his brother, who oversees 20, have been on the job about 10 days so far.
They are made up of young students and travellers, primarily from Quebec.
At this point, Van Westen’s crew had entirely abandoned ship and only 10 of Jake’s pickers will remain, he said..
On Friday morning, there were several vehicles parked by Jake’s orchard with Quebec license plates. Most of them would be gone by day’s end, said Jeff Mischook, a picker from Vancouver.
“Yesterday Jake told everyone that there is no work, because it is more expensive for us to pick the cherries than for him to sell,” he said. “It’s hard for the workers because for most of them picking cherries is their biggest money maker of the year.”
Many of them planned to go to Creston to find work or simply drive back to Quebec with empty pockets.
Mischook, who picks fruit in the summer, so he can travel in the winter, said although it is tough for the pickers, it is much more of a hardship for the growers.
“I am more concerned about Jake who treats all the pickers really well,” he said. “It seems like this could cost him thousands of dollars and is a great waste of product.”
Right now Van Westen has 50,000 pounds of cherries on five acres and there is still money coming out of pocket for spraying.
Not only is what’s happening bad for local growers, he sees problems ahead for the country as a whole.
“We grow less than 1 percent of our own food in Canada, and we are going to be in big trouble if this keeps up,” he said.
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