June 11, 2015 - 10:37 AM
THOMPSON-OKANAGAN – Fred Steele’s day starts before 5 a.m.
As the president of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association, and with 7.5 acres of apple trees to manage, he’s used to an early start, but the early spring across the province has him waking the roosters most days.
“I do most of the work myself,” the 68-year-old says. “I get out there at 4:30 a.m. or 4:45 a.m. and go until lunch around 2 p.m., then I have a couple hours off and I’m out again until dark.”
Steele likes to say he’s getting younger with time, but the truth is he’s passionate about what he does. With his orchard in Kelowna's Glenmore neighbourhood, coupled with the demands of his post as Fruit Growers' president, he doesn’t have the option of slowing down. Especially this year.
“Everything is a little bit ahead with the early spring,” he says. “Cherries are coming hard and fast and pretty darn quick... everything is cruising along slightly ahead of schedule.”
Steele says cherries arrived at the Osoyoos packing plant Tuesday, roughly two weeks ahead of normal and most fruit crops will be ready for market early this year. That requires a lot of hustle on the part of farmers and fruit growers.
And that’s not their only concern. The summer is expected to be unusually hot, and add to that the minimal rainfall during May and early June there are potential problems down the road.
“I’m starting to get worried if we don’t get some rain,” he says. “The wettest time for the Okanagan is usually mid-May through June and that’s not looking exactly hopeful at the moment.”
Most Okanagan orchardists have upgraded their irrigation systems to be more precise and waste less water.
(ADAM PROSKIW /InfoTel Multimedia)
Prolonged heat can have another effect on fruit as well. Fruit not protected from the heat after picking will get damaged, hurting prices.
“If we get sustained days of 40 degree weather we may well experience sun burning if they don’t keep the fruit water-cooled after it’s picked.”
And speaking of water, what about the drought that many farmers fear?
“It’s not that we’re not concerned, we are concerned, but we have done something about it and upgraded our irrigation systems,” he says. “We’ve always taken the view this is a finite resource in a semi-desert so we’d better be careful.
"Years ago we would have used the old sprinklers, now we have microjet and drip systems which use less water. It goes directly to the roots rather than watering the aisles. It makes the water go further so you use less.”
And as for prices, Steele says the California drought will cause higher prices, even for locally-produced food, but that is a trend consumers need to get used to.
“We’re going to see higher prices anyway,” he says. “The days of cheap food are coming to an end but we’re going to have higher quality. Instead of going into mass marketing exports like the Americans… we’re looking at high-quality, niche market exports. People will pay more for that.”
He says what sets Okanagan fruit apart from areas like Peru, Chile, Turkey and Israel is the same things that bring tourists here.
“Our air and water is seen as top notch. If you feel good about what you are buying you’ll pay more for it.”
(ADAM PROSKIW /InfoTel Multimedia)
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015