Major fruit packing facility first slated for North Okanagan breaks ground in Oliver

Expansion for fruit industry

Casey Richardson

Ground has officially been broken on substantial improvements to an Oliver packing facility including state-of-the-art technology that is anticipated to make the facility an industry leader in efficiency.

A July 5 ceremony initiated a project that will see the BC Tree Fruits plant size almost double with improvements coming in robotics, packaging and grading equipment, increased storage capacity and health and safety standards.

“The investments will take approximately two years, and so for the 2024 crop we are expecting to have a good part of the work done,” Warren Sarafinchan, president and CEO of BC Tree Fruits Cooperative, explained.

“The new technology that we are putting in place is second to none . . . we are confident that the packaging lines and grading lines that we are putting in, there will be no one in the industry that will be as efficient as us, and we know that,” Sarafinchan said confidently.

The ground-breaking event was attended by numerous Oliver town councillors; Roly Russell, MLA for Boundary Similkameen; Richard Cannings, Member of Parliament for the South Okanagan, and the BC Tree Fruit Cooperative’s team.

Martin Johansen, Mayor of Oliver was excited about the impact this could have on the economy for the Town of Oliver, the South Okanagan and surrounding communities.

“This is a wonderful expansion and a good news story for us and a good news story for them.”

There is still some ambivalence about how exactly this will impact jobs and how many it will bring to the area.

Laurel Van Dam, vice president of grower relations and corporate affairs explained that “we have hired a number of individuals already . . . we have hired a significant amount of people. I think we are well over the 35 for sure,” while noting she is unsure about the specific numbers.

Andre Scheepers, chair of the board of directors for BC Tree Fruits commented “the job creation is a bit of a problem because we are sitting with a labour shortage at the moment. So the idea is to have an efficient workforce rather than a large workforce.”

Scheepers further noted that the priority is not laying off current employees. They want to focus on having much more skilled workers working with higher technologies.

Johansen explained that the first thing that popped into his mind was how they are going to attract new employees, saying that “when you talk to employers here, they are struggling to keep employees, let alone attract new ones.”

He pointed to the prospects for housing employees in Oliver which has been a struggle over the last number of years. Johansen did note that council is trying to alleviate some of this problem, but also that BC Tree Fruits Cooperative has a "pretty attractive offer to attract these people like health and safety conditions.”

Randy Houle, Oliver director of development services was quick to note “this is great for the South Okanagan, I know they are not happy up north, it's great for us for sure.”

In 2022, BC Tree Fruits Cooperative made a controversial decision to scrap plans to build a new state-of-the-art facility in the Lake Country/Kelowna area. They purchased land in the area of Old Vernon Road and Scotty Creek Road, but upon further investigation decided it was not feasible to construct, and focusing on operations in Oliver would be $20 million cheaper.

This decision was met with some pushback and a few protests, But Sarafinchan said that in an area as big as the BC Tree Fruits Cooperative deals with, you can't keep everybody happy.

When asked why Oliver was chosen, over other places in the valley, Sarafinchan explained that “we already had a large footprint in Oliver, we also had some very good and recently invested-in equipment. So we already had an important footprint in Oliver, and felt that making further investments in the area was in the best interest of our growers.”

“The investments that we are making here are substantial, but they are critical to establishing a sustainable tree fruit industry in the future,” Sarafinchan noted.

“The cooperative exists to create a future for tree fruit growers in the Okanagan. Our job is to maximize returns and to give growers the financial stability that they need, and this is an investment that is designed to do this.”

Sarafinchan explained what the benefits will be to the local fruit market, “we will have improved fruit quality, and the environmental footprint the equipment provides is substantially better than what we currently have. There will be efficiency, health and safety benefits, but ultimately our goal for our growers is to increase returns to the point where they are making a good living for the future.”

He also explained that, of their over 300 members, 70 per cent of the fruit that will be processed are grown in the North Okanagan, and 30 per cent in the south. So they will be moving fruit from the north to the south, but “those costs have been built into the analysis.” While noting they are still confident that taking everything into consideration holistically it is still the best decision for the cooperative.

BC Tree Fruits Cooperative is comprised of over 330 local families who produce a variety of tree fruit commodities including apples, cherries, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots, prunes, plums and table grapes.

In 2017, BC Tree Fruit Cooperative closed their Osoyoos plant after 80 years of operation.

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