Why the Okanagan cherry is taking over

Image Credit: PEXELS

THEY'RE POPPING UP IN THE STRANGEST PLACES, REPLACING APPLES, BARREN HILLSIDES, EVEN A DAIRY FARM

KELOWNA - Want to know what an old Kelowna hay field, an abandoned cattle ranch and defunct dairy farm have in common?

They are now all home to acres and acres of what’s fast becoming the valley’s premier tree fruit export — cherries.

David Geen, VP of the cherry growers association and co-owner of Coral Beach Farms, said his industry’s steady growth has prompted orchardists to find more farmland for their cherry crops and he’s personally behind turning a new leaf in some of the aforementioned spaces.

Statistics Canada reported that acreage devoted to sweet cherries in the Central Okanagan region grew 35.7 per cent between 2011 and 2016 to 2,146 acres.

Today, Geen thinks the Okanagan has around 5,000 acres dedicated to cherries.

It’s an impressive number on its own, but even more when compared to where things were in the 1970s when cherry farmers really saw their crop “fizzle out” after a couple of decades of success.

At that point, the total amount of cherry-dedicated farmland was in the range of 500 acres in the Okanagan.

There are a couple of good reasons for the turnaround.

“The range of areas that can be (used for) planting cherries is greater than it was in my grandfather’s, even my father’s, time,” said Geen. “Back in the day, it was the South Okanagan that had most cherry orchards, and there were few cherry orchards in the Central Okanagan — you wouldn’t even contemplate a cherry orchard in the North Okanagan.”

Part of the reason, he said, is that until the 1970s, winters were a lot more intense. Okanagan Lake had a tendency to freeze over once every eight years, and the damage to trees in those times was devastating.

“We still get cold winters, and it is possible to get winter damage in trees, but the likelihood and severity are much less,” he said.

Another more significant part of the industry’s success came along in the 90s.

At the Summerland Agriculture Innovation Centre, new later ripening varieties of cherries emerged.

“They put us in a position where we were not going head to head with Americans. By August, American cherries are done and (the Okanagan) has cherries ripening for a full month later,” he said.

“The fringe benefit is that the weather in the latter part of July and August is dry.”

The new variety is also rain resistant.

Wet weather is terrible for cherry crops, with rain causing the fruit to bloat and split.

The third factor leading to the cherry’s success is the opening of new markets.

“China being the biggest one, but other markets around the world becoming more affluent,” he said.

“Vietnam has more than double the population of Canada and it’s becoming more affluent. They really put a value on premium quality food and fruit.”

All in all, he said, it’s made for an economically attractive crop.

Glen Lucas, of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, said a long view of the industry shows that the favoured crop shifts throughout time, but the success of the cherry is remarkable.

There are still more apples being grown in the region than cherries, but cherry farms are showing up in places he’d never seen before.

“Apple orchards in the North Okanagan are being displaced by cherries,” he said.

There’s also an orchard near Winfield, near Beaver Lake Road,  that’s switched over.

Mostly, though, it’s simply an expansion that Geen says is strengthening Canada's economic profile.

"It’s a growing industry and contributes to Canada’s balance and trade," said Geen. "Seventy-five per cent is sold outside the country, but that money is coming back into the country and that's a great contributor to the local economy."


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