Farmers from across the region gather to protest BC Tree Fruits move of packing house to Oliver

Growers protest move

UPDATE: 6:30 p.m.

Despite BC Tree Fruits moving its meeting online, a large crowd of growers gathered at the Ramada Hotel Thursday evening.

Growers and farmers tell Castanet they felt the need to stand together after BC Tree Fruits announced they were closing the Kelowna/Lake Country packinghouse and shifting operations to Oliver.

"They gave us only five weeks," said Gurjit Pabla, a farmer from Vernon. "Growers were never asked. This big decision... it should be a general house meeting, not just the directors."

A number of farmers shared their concerns, addressing the crowd in both English and Punjabi.

Kelowna city councillor Mohini Singh also spoke to the crowd, addressing rumours that the City of Kelowna was not helping the packinghouse project.

"On the 15th of June the [Tree Fruits] CEO and a senior executive from the packinghouse did come and speak to the mayor and the city manager," she said. "It was a discussion at a much higher level and just said that in fact they are looking at rebuilding, building a high-tech facility and at no time was there a definitive ask or a definite path forward as to what they were going to do."

Singh says the city has indicated we will do what it can to support the industry and keep the packinghouse in the Central Okanagan.

Hardev Aujla, a grower in Vernon, says it comes down to a lack of trust.

"The board of directors broke our trust, they betrayed us. We chose them and they did represent us. The CEO, he circulated video every week, but he never mentioned anything about this move."

In a video sent out to grower as a newsletter on May 6, BC Tree Fruits CEO and president Warren Sarafinchan pledged that the co-op would be building a new facility on Old Vernon Road in Kelowna.

"The rumour that I am hearing is that the cooperative is not going to build the new facility on Old Vernon Road. I can tell you with certainty that the new facility will be built on Old Vernon Road so if you hear any of your neighbours or friends talking about the fact that the cooperative is not going to be built on Old Vernon Road, I can tell you we are," Sarafinchan said in the the video.

Aujla growers plan on launching their own investigation on the matter.

"We will hire a lawyer and if we need to go to court, we will go to court. We want to run this the way it is," he said.

ORIGINAL: 4:15 p.m.

A planned protest by farmers prior to a BC Tree Fruits growers meeting Thursday in Kelowna has resulted in that meeting being moved online.

On Aug. 17, BC Tree Fruits announced that it will be closing its Kelowna/Lake Country packinghouse and shelving plans for a "super-plant" in the area.

The group announced they will shift operations to their Oliver facility in fall 2022.

Growers had planned on protesting the decision prior to Thursday evening's grower meeting at the Kelowna Ramada Hotel.

BC Tree Fruits CEO and president Warren Sarafinchan said in a news release Thursday afternoon that growers meeting will now be held on Zoom, due to "security concerns" that were raised by the Ramada "due to potentially disruptive protest activity."

"Both the board and management are extremely disappointed to lose the opportunity to meet live and in person with our grower base and to engage in important and constructive dialogue about the changes to our organization," Sarafinchan said.

A total of 95 workers at the Lake Country/Kelowna packinghouse have received layoff notices as a result of the move, although they have been offered positions at the Oliver facility.

Mike Mitchell, the owner of B&T Orchards in Lake Country, says he was shocked when he heard about the move. He and other cooperative members say they were not consulted.

"The growers need to be heard. It is the growers' cooperative and all options need to be weighed. The growers are upset that consolation wasn't given to them. They were kind of taken by surprise."

"The growers haven't been given a clear picture as to why other than the cost saving," Michell added.

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

"The growers' fruit is going to run down south... and transportation. You can't transport apples when it is 20 below and then all of sudden the highway in Summerland gets shut down and that food is frozen. The biggest concern for the growers is the distance the fruit is going to have to travel. The consumer wants a perfect apple. Every time an apple gets a little bruised it costs the growers money," he said.

The growers' meeting was scheduled to be held at 6:30 p.m.

"We got the notice on the door that they cancelled," said the director of sales and marketing with the Ramada Hotel, Maxine DeHart.

BC Tree Fruits Cooperative is comprised of over 270 local grower families who produce a variety of tree fruit commodities including apples, cherries, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots, prunes, plums and table grapes.

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