BC Tree Fruits shift to Oliver takes growers by surprise

Fruit growers 'blindsided'

An announcement from BC Tree Fruits that it will be closing its Kelowna/Lake Country packinghouse and shelving plans for a "super-plant" in the area is not going over well with some cooperative members.

“I was shocked," said Mike Mitchell, owner of B&T Orchards in Lake Country, who says he and many other members feel blindsided by the decision.

“Still trying to take it all in. I'm kind of lost for words, actually.”

Mitchell and other cooperative members say they were not consulted and found out Wednesday evening on a Zoom meeting.

“We own the cooperative and had no idea what [CEO Warren Sarafinchan] and the board of directors were up to. The growers had a Zoom meeting about it... and they are, for lack of a better term, pissed,” said another grower, who asked to remain anonymous for business reasons.

For his part, Mitchell says he is willing to take a wait-and-see attitude.

“According to the presentation they gave us [Wednesday], it was not feasible to construct and deliver the project at the current time in Kelowna," he said, explaining they were told focusing operations in Oliver would be about $20 million cheaper.

Mitchell said the northern half of the Okanagan Valley produces about 70% of the co-op's apple tonnage.

BC Tree Fruits had purchased land in the area of Old Vernon Road and Scotty Creek Road for a new state-of-the-art facility, but said Wednesday it would use the land for something else still to be determined. The closure of the current packinghouse straddling the Kelowna/Lake Country border will cut 90 jobs.

"A lot of guys signed contracts thinking the plant was being built on Old Vernon Road. So now it's showtime," he continued, adding the BC Tree Fruits board has to "pick up their game and make sure the returns for this existing crop that we're currently harvesting is substantially better than it has been in previous years and going forward."

“It's all about the bottom line.”

Mitchell says his family has been part of the cooperative for over 100 years, “and I'm hoping I can continue to ship fruit (with them) for many generations to come but, as I said at last night’s meeting, it's all about the bottom line now and the decision has been made.”

BC Tree Fruits says significant investments will be made to modernize and expand its Oliver facility which will include satellite receiving and storage sites throughout the valley.

The cooperative also took the unprecedented step of guaranteeing apple prices for growers in early July.

“After years of fluctuating market pricing, weather challenges and rapidly increasing inflation, growers need certainty that they will be paid a reasonable price for quality apples that the market is demanding," said BC Tree Fruits CEO Warren Sarafinchan in a news release.

“At the end of the day, I'm a businessman. The number they presented was a $20 million savings to the growers if they build in Oliver which they have to return back to the grower,” says Mitchell.

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