Cherish the cherry pickers because their numbers are heartbreakingly limited in Canada. Tree planters for the forestry service, Canadian-born, do well transitioning to picking cherries. Otherwise, seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico and the Caribbean have the back for this work.
Nowhere is the crisis more pronounced than in British Columbia’s Okanagan,Similkameen and Creston Valleys where sweet cherry production is expanding to about 4,500 acres. But in Ontario’s Niagara peninsula, where cherry production is shrinking and about four per cent of B.C.’s industry, it’s the cost of workers that is the competitive issue. Two growers, on either sides of the country, share their stories.
Lakelee Orchards, owned by Ron Troup, is one of the largest growers of sweet cherries in Ontario with 16 acres. But he’s quit renting one property and is now marketing two-thirds of historical volumes from home base at Jordan Station.
“Last year was a tough year,” says Troup. “We had a great crop but ended up juicing some cherries. That’s kinda sad.”
The Ontario chain stores pre-order American product whose volumes pressure prices of local product. With rising minimum wages, there is no incentive to increase acreage for the high-input crop.
“Sweet cherries tend to be smaller in acreage per grower, primarily geared towards on-farm, pick-your own with only a handful of commercial sized growers.” says Sarah Marshall, general manager, Tender Fruit Growers of Ontario.
Cherries will always be part of the mix at Lakelee Orchards which is also a major pear and peach grower. Officially part of the Greenbelt, Troup’s land base is zoned for agriculture so he doesn’t see pressure from a land-use perspective. However, the province’s increase of minimum wage to $14 per hour is causing angst.
“Our labour bill will be up an additional $480,000 this year,” says Troup. “We won’t be able to get the cost increase out of the marketplace. Labour now constitutes 60 per cent of our costs!”
In British Columbia, the largest sweet cherry grower, Jealous Fruits, is also facing an increase of minimum wage to $12.65 per hour effective June 1. But more worrisome is that access to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program has been hindered by Service Canada delays in processing paperwork.
“We planted 120 acres of sweet cherries this past spring,” explains David Geen, owner, Jealous Fruits. “But the timing of worker arrival was delayed by three to four weeks this past spring.”
What government personnel don’t understand, he explains, is that cherry growers pay the price years down the road. Delayed planting means the trees will likely take an extra year to reach full maturity and producing capacity. That’s beyond the best-case scenario of properly timed planting which is five years for a cherry tree.
Currently, Jealous Fruits own 700 acres of bearing cherry trees, plus the aforementioned new plantings of 120 acres. Those figures include this past spring’s purchase of Dendy’s Orchards near Kelowna.
“This gives us diversity of elevation, from 1,100 feet to 2,600 feet, to spread out different maturing varieties,” says Geen, whose home base is in Winfield. “Half of our acreage is grown at 1,800 feet elevation and higher. And the purchase of the Dendy operation gives us diversity north to south in the Okanagan.”
Geen’s diversification strategies make sense with Summerland’s breeding program for later-maturing cherry varieties that don’t compete with the main harvest season of Washington state. The American behemoth in cherries predicts a harvest of 22 million boxes in 2018, while British Columbia aims to produce two million boxes, mostly in August.
The trade war brewing between the U.S. and China has American growers on edge about shipping cherries to this Asian market, which historically takes big volumes of sweet cherries. They don’t know what the tariff will be when the fruit arrives. As a result, American shippers are apt to flood other Asian markets, as well as North American markets.
“It’s a really volatile situation that makes me a little nervous,” says Geen. “In theory the Canadian grower will be able to take advantage of short supplies in China, but at the price of other markets being oversupplied with U.S. fruit.”
The unsaid conclusion is that cherry prices could fall precipitously in a chain reaction.
“What is so upsetting is that we export high-value cherries,” says Geen. “That’s exactly what the Canadian and provincial governments have encouraged – through breeding research, market access programs and trade shows. There’s a huge amount of risk and it seems that the dots are not connected across government departments to Service Canada about the economic engine we have here.”
British Columbia’s sweet cherry industry is valued at anywhere from $100 to $130 million dollars a year, with a spinoff value several times higher to equipment suppliers and contractors. Jealous Fruits plans to double shift its processing plant at Winfield for the first time this year, at eight tons of cherries per hour. Ground has been broken for a new plant to open in 2020. With more automation, this plant can process 20 tons of cherries per hour.
In a nutshell, this is how the cherry industry works. It’s a postcard for the Canadian and B.C. governments promoting agri-food exports abroad.
“But there’s no point in growing a perfect cherry, if you can’t get the fruit off the tree,” says Geen.
At the peak of the season, July and August, Geen will employ a thousand seasonal employees, of which 650 will come from the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. As of mid-June, he still needs 500. Despite earnest lobbying efforts by the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association and the Canadian Horticultural Council, as well as outreach to the B.C. minister of agriculture, the coming days are fraught with worry about whether there will be enough pickers.
“It’s a huge concern,” says Geen. “I honestly don’t know who is going to get off the plane.”