This B.C. farm can grow softball-sized peaches. This year they’ll rely on vegetables

This B.C. farm can grow softball-sized peaches. This year they'll rely on vegetables
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Hemens
Jennifer Deol, the co-owner of There and Back Again Farms, stands near the farm’s peach orchard in Kelowna, B.C., on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. B.C. farmers are predicting at least a 90 per cent loss of this summer's harvest of fruit including peaches, apricots and nectarines.

One of the first indicators of how bountiful a fruit harvest will be in British Columbia comes months before any peaches, apricots or nectarines start fattening on trees.

Like many other farmers, Jennifer Deol of There and Back Again Farms in Kelowna cuts off some peach branches and brings them into a warm greenhouse to see how well the buds bloom.

The farm has a history of producing massive peaches, softball-sized giants that it has documented on social media. Another farmer on the same land grew an 810-gram peach in 2016, and submitted it for a Guinness World Record, although the mark has since been surpassed.

But this year, not a single flower opened on the greenhouse branches. The trees had fallen victim to a devastating January cold snap.

“We’ll know (for sure) closer to May or June, because (with) different varieties, different trees, sometimes you’ll get a little bit of crop,” Deol said.

“But it’ll be 90 per cent, if not more, lost, based off of what we’re seeing on the peaches, on the apricots, on plums.”

It’s about as bad as it gets for Deol and the rest of the farmers who produce the signature summer stone fruits in the province.

For smaller, often family-run farms in B.C., where even a successful harvest brings only a slim margin for profits, one lost season of fruit can be devastating. This year has some relying on crop diversification, while the president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association says the government needs to act.

Association president Peter Simonsen said he expects harvests for peaches, apricots, nectarines and plums to be down at least 90 per cent.

At the same time, the BC Cherry Association has already warned crops could be “dramatically” reduced.

“It’s just kind of a depressing thing to go out and do all this work that you need to do, water the trees and care for the trees, (and) do that when there’s no fruit on them,” Simonsen said.

Deol said the region saw a warmer-than-usual start to winter that meant fruit trees never went completely dormant and buds were seen swelling with activity in early January.

Then came the cold.

In mid-January, the B.C. Interior saw several days of frigid temperatures that dropped to -27 C in Kelowna, killing off those active buds.

Deol said it followed previous weather woes, including 2021’s heat dome followed by a harsh winter that killed off most of the fruit in 2022.

“So these compounding impacts are making it not only difficult to grow this fruit and supply it, but also make any money off of this land that we’re investing a lot into, to keep growing,” she said.

In a good year, the farm’s four acres of peaches bring in about $80,000 and stone fruits combined represent about 20 per cent of the income from the 30-acre farm Deol and her husband run.

She said they’ll be kept afloat this year in part thanks to their decision to diversify their crops, meaning they’ll have a range of vegetables and apples to sell from their stand.

The income from Deol’s second job in communications will also help bridge the gap and continue to pay off debts that come with running the farm.

“There is absolutely no way you can farm in the Okanagan, and be small scale, and sell 100 per cent local, without bringing in additional income,” she said.

She said they expect things to be “very, very tight.”

“Just because there’s no peaches on the trees, you still have to put money toward keeping the trees healthy for next year,” she said.

FARMERS AN ‘ENDANGERED SPECIES’

Simonsen said British Columbia protects agricultural land but has “forgotten” about farms and farmers.

“We’re an endangered species,” he said.

“You know, if there were 200 marmots left on Vancouver Island … all kinds of effort would go into keeping them alive.”

He said the industry needs existing government programs meant to protect farmers through difficult years, to work the way they are meant to.

He said in years where fruit is sold at a low price, the crop insurance program funded by the provincial and federal governments only insures at a low value, making potential payouts less and less helpful.

“We’re not protected adequately during the bad years and we don’t make enough money in the good years to let us get through these bad years,” he said.

“And so that’s why you’re seeing a big erosion in the membership of associations like ours and the number of people who are still farming.”

The number of tree fruit farms in British Columbia has been in decline since data started being collected more than 60 years ago.

The province went from having 4,381 farms in 1961 to 2,091 in 2021, according to the most recent Statistics Canada census of agriculture.

Simonsen said the association is pushing for some of the complicated rules that dictate insurance payouts to be adjusted.

“We’d like some of these rules changed, even just for this one year,” he said. “(We want) our deductibles to be … based on what we were making a few years ago, as opposed to what we’re making now.”

When asked whether she thought the current crop insurance program was adequate to support farmers, Pam Alexis, B.C.’s minister of agriculture and food, said she had discussed the issue with federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay and it would be part of a meeting of provincial and territorial ministers in July.

“I’ve had this conversation with the federal minister, because I don’t think that these programs were intended for an almost a yearly investment or buy-in and he agrees that it needs to be looked at,” she said in an interview.

“The federal government, along with all the provincial ministers, are looking at making some changes, because it’s not necessarily the best thing when we are slammed so many times with different weather extremes where farmers need to have that kind of support.”

Alexis said the province is looking to expand research into finding hardier grapes that can survive in extreme weather to include stone fruit.

She said there’s been “significant” uptake in a $15-million replanting program announced last year aimed at helping farmers adapt to the changing environment and diversify their crops.

She said officials with her ministry are.in the process of assessing the damage done to fruit this season and promoting “business risk management” programs available to farmers, like AgriStability funding and crop insurance, to help in the short term.

“First of all, they’ve got to go assess the damage and then work through what program would be best,” she said. “And so that’s what we’ve got people on the ground doing right as we speak.”

LOOKING BEYOND YOU-PICK PEACHES

At West Kelowna’s Paynter’s Fruit Market, owner Jennay Oliver won’t be offering you-pick peaches or apricots from the orchards behind her fruit stand this year but she still holds out hope that some of their hardy plum varieties may have survived the January freeze.

The 50-acre farm is split between fruit and vegetables, with peaches, apricots, plums, apple and pear trees on one half and ground crops including tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and squash on the other.

She estimates they’re out more than $100,000 in lost fruit this year but says the variety of crops they grow and sell allows them to weather some of the uncertainty.

“So for four months we’re harvesting something, which works really well for when we have a hail event, or we have a big freeze like we did in January. Not everything is susceptible or ready to be harvested at once.”

With peach picking not in the cards this summer, the farm is pivoting to something they first tried when the weather last took out their fruit in 2022.

“We did a you-pick tomato field and it was awesome,” she said.

“People really got into making salsa, and canning, and we had these really cheap you-pick tomatoes. And it was amazing. People were coming out and loving it still.”

The farm will also be offering you-pick flowers alongside an ice cream and coffee bar at the market.

While she expects to lose some tourism dollars from the people who would visit to buy fruit, Oliver said she hopes others will be enticed to visit by the beauty of the region and the other things they’re selling.

Deol said the difficult harvest makes it even more important for people to support local farmers who sell what they grow.

Oliver, a fourth-generation farmer, said she’s motivated to keep going by her love of growing food for people.

“Maybe we’ll rip out our peaches and then I’ll grow something else,” she said

“If the climate isn’t loving peaches or apricots going forward, then we’ll take everything out and grow something else.”

—

This is the second story in a three-part series, “B.C.’s bitter harvest,” examining the consequences of weather and climate crises for agriculture, and how farmers and others are charting a path forward.

READ PREVIOUS: ‘Clean slate’ to reshape B.C. wine industry, after climate-related catastrophes

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2024. 

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian PressAshley Joannou, The Canadian Press

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