A challenging environment for growers has led to changes at the Kelowna, British Columbia, based BC Tree Fruits, Ltd. with more leadership changes ahead for the BC Fruit Growers’ Association.
Alan Tyabji became chief executive officer of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative and BC Tree Fruits Limited in early November, succeeding Gary Schieck, said Chris Pollock, marketing manager for BC Tree Fruits.
The Kelowna-based BC Fruit Growers Association found itself in the headlines in December after its then-president Kirpal Boparai announced he was immediately stepping down. Vice president Jeet Dukhia will act as president until a successor is elected Jan. 19.
“I hope to stabilize the Association after a period of turbulence and uncertainty in the industry,” Dukhia said in a news release.
Boparai had pitched a more aggressive approach with government and other industry players, but found controversy when The Kelowna Daily Courier reported he had marketed his apples outside the cooperative structure, which is against the terms of the grower’s contract. He was later booted from the cooperative.
Desmond O’Rourke, founder of Belrose, Inc., Pullman, Wash., said that British Columbia tree fruit growers face a tough business environment. Competing with 130 million cartons of fresh apple production in Washington state, the 3 million plus cartons that British Columbia markets doesn’t benefit from the same economies of scale, O’Rourke said. Ten years ago, Okanagan Valley had about 7 million cartons of fresh apples, O’Rourke said.
The Okanagan Valley is also one of the prime residential retirement/second home communities in Canada, boasting sunshine and access to ski resorts.
“Land prices are a huge problem for the industry,” O’Rourke said. In addition, growers find it difficult to expand with large blocks of land, since many orchards are smaller.
Competition with the grape industry has also taken a toll on tree fruit growers, as bidding for land for grape production has driven up prices as high as $140,000 per acre, compared with $10,000 per acre for fruit land in the Columbia Basin in Washington.
The entire Canadian apple industry is shrinking in response from fierce competition from Washington and other U.S. growing areas, O’Rourke said. One key factor is that Washington and California growers can grow some of the longer season varieties, including braeburn, Pink Lady and fuji. The shorter growing season in Canada makes those varieties impractical to grow, O’Rourke said.
“They are fairly limited in the number of new hot varieties they can grow compared with Washington state or Chile,” he said.
Canada’s apple growers face the long-term challenge of a smaller production base to raise money for research and promotion.
“It’s difficult for the industry in its current size to afford to modernize,” he said.
Some tree fruit leaders in Canada have argued in recent years for direct investment by the government of Canada to help growers and packers modernize, O’Rourke said.