A company with local roots is working on breathing new life into Okanagan Falls, aiming to supply hundreds of local jobs and revitalize the downtown.
The town has been down on its luck for years, with only a few restaurants and shops populating the main street.
Garry Peters and his company Avery Group recently purchased the historic OK Falls Hotel. They are also the owners of the old Weyerhaeuser mill, which was turned into a light industrial park after being purchased in 2020, and they're starting up Avery Family Farms.
The hotel has been closed in recent years and it previously had a stop-work order issued by the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen.
“One of the reasons that my parents, Garry and Victoria Peters, purchased the hotel was to give back to the community,” said Rachelle Peters, quality assurance manager at Avery Family Farms.
“It was clear that the community really missed the pub since it closed in 2018. And I think it's really important for people to have a place to gather in a community. We're thrilled that we can announce that the pub will soon be opening.”
Randy Stoltz, the manager prior to the pub's closing, will be leasing and running the venue.
“I do know that he's bringing back some of the community favourites when they open in the near future,” Rachelle added. The company chose to bring Stolz back as he aligned with their company vision, had the right experience and was local.
Avery Group is currently using the OK Falls Hotel as temporary housing for some of their out-of-town employees.
“There's not much of a housing supply here in OK Falls. So the hotel really suits that purpose. We really hope that in the longer term with the revitalization of OK Falls, there will be more housing opportunities and in the future hopefully, we can turn this space back into a public space, a public hotel,” Rachelle added.
“We have some family members, Aaron and AJ, they just moved here, and they're really keen to help us and learn as much as they can about Avery Family Farms and they moved from the coast.”
After a long period of research and studying the international technologies available for indoor agriculture, Avery Family Farms began the design of the vertical farming building in their industrial park.
Construction has been delayed by disruptions in the supply chain and labour shortages, according to Farm General Manager Mark Sundin.
“But we're hoping that we'll have seeds in the ground by early summer,” he said.
The farm is part of the 114-acre industrial park, of which 80 acres will be usable and for sale. The site is currently being levelled and filled with gravel.
“We expect or anticipate to be selling lots within the next five, six months. We have several candidates right now and prospects for different lots for different uses,” David Pottinger, the director of marketing for the Avery Industrial Business Park said.
These include warehousing, wood products, the wine industry and assembly production.
“The total buildable in the park is about two million square feet. That's what we can accommodate. That should bring in about 2,000 employees to the area, but it'll take probably five to 10 years to build it out,” Pottinger added.
“The next purchaser will probably be in 18 months, it takes six months to get a building permit and development permit. And it'll take about a year to build. But hopefully, we can run those in conjunction with each other.”
The first to be operational this year will be the vertical farming production. With the family's history in farming and a desire to balance out the local agricultural businesses, Okanagan Falls made sense as the location to start up production.
“You're close to a number of [cities] within a four-hour to five-hour drive of some large municipalities like the Greater Vancouver area, Kamloops and Kelowna. So for distribution, it's close to the highway, with quick access,” Sundin said.
The dwindling space for industrial land in the Lower Mainland also made the area appealing.
“The opportunity to purchase a site like this doesn't come along very often and demand outstrips the land available,” Pottinger said.
“An acre of land in Surrey is $7 million and an acre of land here will probably sell for $1 million to $1.2 at this point. But that varies because of the infrastructure we have to put in…If you operated on five acres of land in Burnaby, you're sitting on $50 million, you can come up here and buy five acres and build a new plant for say $12 million.”
The family was intent on placing the farm in the Okanagan Valley after seeing grocery store shelves bare through the pandemic and the highway closures due to the atmospheric river events in 2021.
“We're looking at trying to produce high quality, consistent year-round production of lettuce products for southern British Columbia, and eventually expanding to other regions,” Sundin said.
“COVID was kind of the spring of that recognization that we've spent so much of our time in the last 30-40 years here in Canada sourcing our daily needed produce from California or other regions. So it's trying to bring some homegrown produce here but not field grown, something that you can grow year-round.”
Planning production came down to the right hydroponic system.
”The key functions there are creating that ability to control the environment, to the atmosphere that the plants like. And secondarily, from our perspective is a lot with hygiene management and pest control as well,” Sunding said.
In the roughly 50,000-square-foot building, production levels will vary depending on the crops.
“Until we get an operation, it's hard to really determine a full number but I would say ballpark of around 40 to 50 employees to be able to make this operation work. The goal is to hire as many local employees as we possibly can to fit those needs,” Sundin added.
“I believe Canada is a little slow to the game when it comes to vertical farms. I mean, there's a lot more activity in the United States. But just, for example, in Japan, they have over 360-odd, active vertical farms and 16 to 17 per cent of their lettuce products are grown indoors with indoor agriculture. Here in Canada, we are in a good position for vertical farms providing it's done correctly.”
Having spent 10 years over in Japan, Sunding said he has been able to bring key knowledge for the vertical farming process and is able to help Avery farms with that transition.
“I just think vertical farming is going to become a mainstream part of Canadian agriculture and we think that the BC government and the federal governments are going to recognize that sooner than later and will start changing some of the rules to make it a bit more advantageous for us to set up operations and receive the same credits that other agricultural institutions do,” he said.
“I think it's fantastic that to spark a little economic light under this region, for growth for people's jobs and for the general economy.”
Overall, the major projects from Avery Group will take five to ten years for full development, and Rachelle said she hopes the business attracts more people to the small town in the future.
“I'm excited about the revitalization, the sustainability of the community. I'd love to see Main Street have a bit more life, some new businesses that could potentially feed off some of the opportunities that I think we're creating up at the business park.”