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Harvest is no bowl of cherries for Okanagan growers this year

The cherry harvest is fully underway in the South Okanagan and now getting underway in the Central and North Okanagan, but growers have their hands full dealing with weather and labour issues this year.
The cherry harvest is fully underway in the South Okanagan and now getting underway in the Central and North Okanagan, but growers have their hands full dealing with weather and labour issues this year.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The cherry harvest has been in full swing in the southern part of the valley for several weeks now, with picking in the central part of the valley getting underway this week.

As the crop comes in, growers are struggling, not only with poor weather, but labour issues as well as the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the amount of temporary farm labour in the valley.

The Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen operates Loose Bay Campground north of Oliver, a campground frequented by temporary farm workers. A recent report suggested the campground would max out at 150 campers compared to around 300 who normally show up for the picking season.

RDOS board chair Karla Kozakevich says she doesn’t have any formal numbers but based on conversations with those in the industry, it appears there is about half the normal number of temporary agricultural workers in the South Okanagan so far this year.

B.C. Cherry Association president and cherry orchardist  Saukpaul Bal says he has started to harvest early varieties in Kelowna this week.

"We’ve had that rain, it did a bit of damage, but most of it is the prolonged rain where the trees will suck up a lot of water through the roots. That will also cause splitting, and I think it was Canada Day we had that all day rain,” he says.

On the labour front, Bal says he has been involved in the foreign agricultural worker program for 12 years now.

“We’ve got some good workers, some from Mexico, some from Jamaica. We’ve also used Canadian workers from back east, but every year they’ve been coming in smaller and smaller numbers. This year with the pandemic we’re not too sure how many will be arriving,” he says.

Bal says he’s sufficiently staffed to start the season, but that could change when he begins to harvest peak volumes.

That’s when we might get into some problems, but it being a shorter crop, there’s not as many cherries out there. Had it been a bumper crop, I imagine the industry would be having a lot of problems,” he says.

“Two bad seasons in a row. It’s a tough time for cherry growers for sure, but we’re hopeful things will turn around next season,” he says.

The most recent estimates put this year’s weather damage on the B.C. cherry industry at $16 million, but that number is expected to rise as the weather continues to be uncooperative.

Bal expects the bulk of his crop to be mature by the last week of July through the first week of August.

“We’re still hoping it dries up. We need a run of good weather,” he says.

Further south in Oliver, Krazy Cherry Fruit Company’s Harman Bahniwal has orchards in Oliver, Kelowna and Vernon.

“Rain’s been a problem everywhere, but Kelowna’s been getting a lot more rain than the south,” he says.

“It’s been a challenge just with COVID-19, getting foreign workers in, that sort of thing. We have most of our foreign workers, but the additional protocols add to the workload,” Bahniwal adds.

Krazy Cherry is in the major part of the season, picking Lapins this week. Bahniwal figures he’s lost 60 to 70 per cent of his crop over last year due to weather issues.

“Same expenses, maybe more, due to COVID. We’re applying more sprays and we’ve had helicopters out every day,” he says.

Even with all the additional protective measures there are still split fruit.

“The rain has definitely had an impact, We don’t like to pick when it rains because we don’t want to export wet cherries, and with the labour market it can be tough getting workers when they are needed,” Bahniwal says.

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