KELOWNA – Weather challenges and growing demand over the past two years mean some tender fruit growers are struggling to secure new trees for their orchards.
“My son and I attempted to source some peach trees for next spring and the spring two years from now and there’s absolutely nothing. So, we tried to find some rootstock. No rootstocks whatsoever for soft fruits anywhere,” says Sam DiMaria of Bella Rosa Orchards in Kelowna. “This year we attempted to look for rootstocks for pears. It’s been extremely hard. There’s virtually nobody here in Canada, that’s for sure. In the States, if you do happen to find rootstocks, you’re extremely lucky and then there are other problems.”
The nurseries supplying the sector say a number of factors, including the extreme weather events of recent years, have all contributed to the supply pinch.
“We’ve experienced significant losses in our crops over the last three years,” says Mike Byland, vice-president and general manager of Bylands Nurseries Ltd. in West Kelowna.
He says damage occurred “pretty much across the board with all of our commercial fruit trees.”
Bylands also brings in some rootstock from across the border and says the weather-related losses mean tree orders are “really backed up.”
“We don’t have any trees left for 2022, and tree availability will be very limited in 2023 as well because it takes a few years to work through some of the challenges,” says Byland.
The difficulties prompted Byland to change tack and streamline operations, growing to order rather than maintaining a large planting vulnerable to the weather. The high cost of labour for tending trees that may or may not sell was also a factor.
“We used to grow on spec, but it takes four years to grow a tree from start to finish,” he explains. “This long production time, along with high costs of rootstocks, labour challenges and issues with regards to losses, have really impacted our operation and forced us to adapt our practices.”
While the nursery will take orders for 2023 as usual, beginning in June, orders for 2024 and beyond will require a minimum order of 500 trees of a single variety.
“We are moving towards custom growing for the industry,” says Byland. “These custom orders will require a minimum order and for growers to work further ahead with order timeframes, but these details still need to be finalized and communicated to our customers.”
Byland hopes BC does not get battered with another year of weather extremes.
“It’s got to the point where it’s become difficult to be profitable with commercial fruit tree sales,” he says. “We’ve had three years in a row where environmental pressures have had huge impacts on our yield and ultimately, profitability.”
Short supply makes diversification hard
Stock shortages in Canada combined with the challenges of importing clean plant material from the US have BC producers looking high and low for plants to renew and expand their orchards.
Katie Sardinha of Kaleidoscope Fruit Ranch in Summerland primarily grow organic apples, but the family-run farm is looking to diversify with pears, hardy kiwis and some soft fruits.
Sardinha has struggled to find a nursery that would fulfill her 150-tree order.
“We are a small grower with about 10 acres,” Sardinha says. “That’s very common around here, to be small-scale growers, so it makes sense for our business plan to do small replants on a regular basis.”
With the new minimum order requirements at Bylands, she called Van Well Nursery Inc. and C&O Nursery in Washington. Both say they’re no longer accepting orders from Canada, with C&O citing business risks as the key factor.
DiMaria says US nurseries are largely opposed to Canadian Food Inspection Agency rules requiring that incoming trees undergo fumigation to kill invasive species like the Oriental fruit moth, which is still unknown in BC.
“Fumigation is quite an involved process and it’s very expensive for the nurseries to do,” he says. “In order for them to do fumigation, they require a minimum amount of trees for them to cover their costs.”
But even if producers are willing to place the minimum required order for fumigation and cover the costs, nurseries face issues getting their stock into Canada. The nurseries he’s spoken with in Washington and Oregon all claim Canada Border Services Agency officers impose all sorts of red tape that makes shipping to Canada extremely difficult.
“It’s not worth their trouble to ship those things into Canada even after they’re fumigated,” says DiMaria. “They were telling me that I would have to deal with [CBSA] and that I would have to try and resolve any issues that come out of [CBSA] at the border when importing any plant material. They’ve washed their hands of that and thrown it on our lap.”
DiMaria has gone through the process of importing trees from south of the border himself and notes it really is a hassle – “to the point where you’re willing to say, ‘forget it.’”
To renew her aging orchard, Sardinha reached out to smaller nurseries in BC. She was eventually able to secure stock from Similkameen Nurseries Ltd. in Cawston, thanks to the business’s flexibility.
“They only do apples and they agreed to try doing pears. We were lucky that they agreed to do that because otherwise we were basically going to have to do our own nursery, which is a whole new thing for us and kind of overwhelming,” says Sardinha.
She’ll have to wait three years for their new stock to be ready, but it’s easier than doing it herself.
Still, the short supply of rootstock across North America makes it difficult for growers to plan ahead.
“If I want to plant, what do I plant that can make me money? Where do I find the plants,? Where do I find the trees? What’s the cost of the trees, and if I can find them in the US, what are the hurdles that have to be overcome to bring them here?” asks DiMaria. “I’m afraid that a lot of tree fruit growers in the valley are putting off decisions to replant and renew their orchards. … Our choices have been very limited in terms of what we can plant.”
A resolution passed at the BC Fruit Growers’ Association’s annual general meeting in February directed the association to determine ways to improve access to fruit trees from nurseries.