KELOWNA – At 28, Avi Gill recognizes the need to do things differently to keep his family’s 26-year tradition of growing Okanagan apples and cherries profitable. While production improvements are on-going and have helped increase the crops’ value, Gill has turned his attention to adding value to apples, which continue to face price challenges.
Born in Penticton to parents who emigrated to Canada from India, Gill was raised on the family’s farm in Kelowna but left for university and completed a science and pharmacy degree at UBC in 2016. He managed a drug store in Kelowna for about 18 months before returning to the orchard.
The operation had grown from a single property of 20 acres in 1994 to an assortment of owned and leased properties encompassing 150 acres, largely in southeast Kelowna.
“We sat down as a family at the end of 2017 to talk about succession planning and how we can help build on the existing business. We decided that because of commodity prices and limited control of them, we should make value added fruit products,” says Gill.
He started making apple juice but it didn’t take long for another idea to evolve, formulating an apple soda made from pure apple juice. Anthony Lewis, co-founder of the Vibrant Vine Winery, was a major contributor in realizing the vision.
The concept is one apple per can, water and carbonation with no added flavours or colour. Gill says retailers tell him the drink is the first of its kind.
“We’ve tried to keep it very simple and healthy. Rather than using many apples to make one cup of juice, our drink has the equivalent of juice from one apple making it lower calorie than juice, but adding the fizz people crave. At 50 calories a can, we say it’s like eating an apple in a different way,” explains Gill.
The new brand, Farming Karma Fruit Co., honours Gill’s dad, Karma Gill. Karma is well-recognized among Kelowna’s tree fruit growers and has served as a director of the BC Fruit Growers Association and the BC Tree Fruits Cooperative, among other organizations.
Avi Gill hasn’t fallen far from the tree. This spring, he became a BCFGA director. He also serves on Kelowna’s agricultural advisory committee. He recognizes the need to stay in touch with what’s going on in the bigger picture.
The past two years have seen the Gill family purchase a juice press from Austria, a canning line, and create a tasting room on the farm to rival the Okanagan’s many wineries. Guests can view the apples being juiced, as well as the canning line.
“We wanted to make this like a winery for kids – a non-alcoholic place. We’ve converted our existing fruit stand on McKenzie Rd. into a cool place where kids can learn about agriculture … Our slogans are Do Good and Freedom, Family and Fun, the things we value here,” he says.
Gill says help from his dad, mom Kuku, wife of three years Binny, and brother Sumeet have been instrumental in getting the project going.
He met Binny through the UBC Bhangra Club. He’s a singer with YouTube videos. She’s a dancer with an engineering background who’s now working for Bank of Montreal as a relationship manager in the agriculture sector.
“She knows more about agriculture than I do,” laughs Gill, who is quick to praise his wife and other family members’ contributions to the business.
His brother Sumeet is in England finishing up a physiotherapy degree but Gill says the farm might draw him back as well. Sumeet has played a huge role in Farming Karma’s marketing direction.
Farming Karma sold its soda at the Kelowna Farmers Market last year and retailers have picked it up. It’s now found in 400 stores across BC, including Independent in Kelowna as well as locations of Safeway, Save-On-Foods and Nesters. With the potential loss of farm visitors as a result of COVID-19, it’s begun selling the soda online through Amazon.
Gill credits the time they’ve spent working on branding.
“Succession is a big issue in the tree-fruit industry and I feel like value-adding is one of the things that may draw the next generation into ag. I know a lot of young people who are into wineries and part of that is the possibilities it creates like getting your own bottle style, marketing how you want and how your product is unique,” he says. “It’s more exciting to them than just the growing.”
While it’s been a lot of work to create the product and establish the market, the family now faces the bigger challenge of getting consumers to try something new in a saturated market.
One step at a time
Gill isn’t discouraged, though. Farming Karma has created a craft cider kit so a person can turn two litres of juice into hard apple cider in just six days. A new cherry soda is another possibility, but he’s taking it one step at a time.
He says finding local expertise in the value-added industry and specifically in the juice industry was more of a challenge than he thought it should be. He would like to see a local lab where producers could test new recipes.
While his pharmacy training was helpful in creating a safe and top-quality product, he worked with a Toronto consultant to ensure he was following best practices.
“I’m very inexperienced at this stuff,” he says. “It is encouraging when I’m told by the outside, more experienced people that they think we have a good product and have it together.”
For now, the company will concentrate on growing the BC market but Gill hasn’t ruled out national and international sales.
“We believe we are a category leader, so if an opportunity came our way, we would be all over it,” he said.