’Never seen a crop this low’: Okanagan cherry farmers having a terrible year

Cherry losses blossom

Cindy White

A budding disaster is unfolding across the Okanagan-Similkameen.

Now that blossoms are starting to appear, cherry growers are realizing they face a significant crop loss from this past winter’s extreme cold snap in mid-January.

“We have never, never seen a crop this low,” says BC Cherry Association president Sukhpaul Bal, whose family has farmed on Kelowna’s Rutland bench for several decades.

He says as farming costs rise, growers are having to weigh if it’s even worth it to tend their cherry trees this year. “We are desperately needing a reasonable amount of volume to go out there and harvest.

“We can only spread our expenses across the crop that we have. We it’s severely low, costs skyrocket.”

Damage varies across the region

At Gatzke Orchards in Oyama, some of the trees look OK, but others have little to no buds. The damage varies across the valley.

“Definitely I’m seeing in some high elevations, the cherries are really extremely light – in some places nothing,” notes owner Alan Gatzke.

“I’ve got lots of friends that are farming as well and I’m seeing some orchards in low elevations, absolutely 100 per cent. And I’m seeing some orchards at higher elevations and in some of the side valleys, like Joe Rich, Glenmore is pretty harsh and up in the upper elevations of Westbank.”

He says the Similkameen Valley may have been the worst hit, with not only no buds but major tree die-back.

Peaches and apricots will be scarce

Jennay Oliver at West Kelowna’s Paynter’s Fruit Market tells Castanet they need to wait a month to see the full extent of the damage, but there’s definitely a substantial amount. And it’s not just cherries that are suffering.

Oliver says her crop for peaches and apricots are a 100 per cent loss. Gatzke is also in a similar situation for those fruits.

Oliver points out that Paynter’s is always changing its crops and will be planting more watermelons , cantaloupe and other ground crops to try to make up the loss for the tree fruits.

More government help needed

The Okanagan represents almost all of Canada’s cherry industry. Bal is calling on the provincial and federal governments to do more to help them through this latest weather hit.

“The current system does not work for what we’ve been facing,” says Bal. “We’re looking for government to step up and show some leadership and acknowledge that yes, these are different conditions, situations that have arose in the last five years. Investment is needed to make sure the cherry industry is healthy moving forward.”

While the recently announced $70 million dollar replant program will help, he believes infrastructure investment dollars will be necessary to deal with more frequent extreme weather events.

His advice to consumers? Go directly to your local farmer if you want B.C. cherries this year.

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