25% of Fruitgrowing Agricultural Productive Capacity in the Okanagan is Wasted

Here’s an industrial apple plantation after harvest. The trees are in long rain rows to facilitate mechanized farming, using multi-ton tractors and spraying equipment (combined weight of about 5 tonnes). After harvest, the impact of the equipment on the soil is plain to see. Average orchard compaction runs to 120 tonnes per year running alongside the tree rows per year.

I estimate that 25% of the soil above is heavily compacted, which means, effectively, it carries less than enough oxygen to adequately support life, reduces tree growth by up to 75%, dramatically reduces photosynthesis due to narrowing of leaf stomata, and increases production of ethylene gasses (hastening ripening in storage). Compensation will have to be made through increased fertilization, leading to decreased fruit flavour and increased orchard nitrate run-off, compounded by the inability of the soil to hold water or water-based nutrients Think about it. There are 35,000 acres of vineyard and orchard in the Okanagan. For the benefit of mechanized production, about 25% of the soil surface is lost due to heavy equipment uses, or 8,500 acres, and the ability of the trees and vines to prosper on the other 26,500 acres is reduced by up to 75%. Is that a fair trade?  We could effectively eliminate heavy equipment and free up 8500 acres for new production, which would be enough land for between 850 and 1700 young farmers. While you’re wondering about that, here is that orchard two years ago. Have another look…

See the leaves that the frost has dropped below the trees Those brown strips are lying on weed-sprayed land. As you can see, another quarter of the land has been sprayed with weed-killers.  Between compaction and weed-killing, in other words, only 50% of the land is reacting naturally to the atmosphere, and the land is potentially carrying only 50% of the microbes needed to feed these trees, requiring yet more artificial nutrients. Presumably, a system of managing the trees and the removal of the crop without the heavy equipment would be subsidized by decreased nutrient use, increased tree health and productivity, and decreased capital dependency, all offset by an increased entrepreneurial pool. Ah, why not have a look in the winter, before you make up your mind:

This expensive system of posts and wires is designed to eliminate labour, allowing for this land to be farmed with a minimum of employment and a maximum of capital investment. In other words, those 850 farmers would be working on this land if it weren’t for this mechanized system that has replaced them. Not only would the land be healthier, but so would the community. If you think of it, though, apples are shipped to packing facilities in 800 pound containers. There they are loaded into 32 pound containers, or even 20 pound ones, before being shipped to market. It would take a lot to convince me that we couldn’t eliminate the weight load on orchards by moving the fruit out of the orchard on lightweight fruit-bearing systems (they exist), even ones that made use of the pole systems. At  $25,000 -$75,000 per orchard/vineyard acre, a 30 acre orchard revitalizing its 25% lost land would have an instant land investment of between approximately $250,000 and $750,000. I am sure a system could be worked out for a tiny fraction of that benefit. Mind you, we could also talk about the 25% of fruit-growing land that is currently idle in the Greater Kelowna area, due to land speculation and gentrification issues. If that number holds for the entire value, then we need to revise our figures: 50% of Okanagan fruitgrowing land, or enough for 1700 full time orchard owners and their families, is being wasted, right now, today, every day. Do you want to chop it up another way? Sure: something between 25% and 50% of the horticultural water in the Okanagan is being wasted, without even taking into account the need for increased irrigation to make up for poor plant vigour. And here’s the thing: we ran out of water in 1992. That was, again (what’s with these numbers?) 25 years ago.


Why British Columbia Needs To Extend Its Support for its Fruit Industry.

Nice farm, huh.P1010370 What are they growing?P1010371 Trouble and debt.P1010373Approximately 66,000 apple tree roots planted last spring and grafted late last summer. P1010380 Subsidized by the Ministry of Agriculture. The idea is to save money: plant the root, graft a desired bud onto it in early August, cut it off above the bud in March, and grow a tree. Trees cost about $10 wholesale if a nursery does this. Looking at the mess below, that might be a good idea.P1010381Thing is, this is the North Okanagan and late August is too late. A month too late. Grafting success should be between 94 and 99%.  We’re looking at, um, less than 1%.P1010393

Land: $1,400,000. 30 Acres. Government estimated costs, other than trees: $180,000. My estimates: roots (rootstocks, actually), $100,000; grafting, $20,000; grafting wood, $66,000. Total, estimated: $366,000, plus the land, for a big whack: $1,766,000. I might be a bit off on these figures, but even as educated guesses you can see that

that’s a hell of  lot of money gone down the drain.

Look below. You can see that the weeds have gotten out of hand. The trees whacked off below … (the graft on the third from the left is growing, but how can it compete with the weeds?) …

P1010396 … should all be two to four inches high. My apricot grafts from the summer are10 inches high. They start earlier than apples, though. My nectarine was slow, but they’re late. My apple trees (not babies like these) have grown 6 inches. We aim for that, but expect a delay. I grafted three apple trees on August 20, fearing it was too late, but I had a chance at some rare grafting wood, so nothing lost. They didn’t make it. That was a week before this grafting job (above) started. I feared the worst all winter long. Sadly, my fears came true. For healthy nursery growth, the rough measure is: 1 foot, by June 30, and 1 inch a day until the third week of August and perhaps into September in a warm year. The deal is: apples in the second year, with careful and expert growing. The deal is: weed the things by hand; we’re not fooling around here. Weedkiller (see above) doesn’t reduce competition; it only reduces tangles. This farmer is busy grafting a small portion of his 66,000 new trees this spring, at about $2 per tree, and is not getting to fertilizer, water, weeding, or anything else. I bet the pockets are pretty empty.It’s crisis time. The deal is, the government invests $2.50 into the trees, approves a paper plan and an expert inspection of the site and documents, and then lets the farmers go at it, because “they’re the experts and they know best.” I saw that quote in the fall, but can’t find it right now. It’s not an exact quote from the government, but it’s from a politician, and it’s close. There’s an answer to it, though:

No, they don’t.

The culture has been broken. (Yes, it’s not called agri – culture because it’s agri- business or something. It’s an ancient culture.) Today, knowledge is no longer passed on. Not specific knowledge like this. It’s not as if you can go to IT school and learn this stuff. You have to learn it from someone who has done it, for years. I learned it when I was ten, from Karl Mangold, and 12, from Joe (Sepp) Treidl, and when I was 22 from Hugh Dendy. I learned about early season grafting disasters in 1970, on the old Richter Ranch, which isn’t called, we learned that winter, Siberian Flats for nothing. We’re talking 48 years of knowledge in my hands. I went to the local college, warning that this was going to happen and it could be prevented. I was told that no courses can be offered unless industry demands them. That’s how the college does things, I was told: it provides specific training to workers that industry wants trained. Well, the thing is, and I’ll say it only once, we used to have a network of horticultural experts who made sure that this didn’t happen. Now we have none and now it does.


But the rhetoric is very fine:

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick (October 15, 2015) –

“The B.C. treefruit industry asked for a long-term replant program and the B.C. government delivered it. The funding is available now and it provides employment and business opportunities for B.C. growers while ensuring British Columbians have access to fresh and local foods.”

BC Fruit Growers’ Association president Fred Steele –

“Replant is critical to the future of our industry as we need to produce high quality, new varieties of tree fruit to compete locally and to seize export opportunities. We appreciate the B.C. government’s early launch of the second year of the replant program and their investment in the renewal of B.C. orchards that is critical to the future of Okanagan tree fruit farms.”

It’s time to bring the horticulturalists back. Ted Swales, we need you, man. All you giants, gone to spirit. I remember you. I remember when this stuff worked.


The Best Fruit Growing Land

The image below shows an old síyaʔ (saskatoon berry) gathering ground in the Thompson River Gorge, across the river from an ancient village site. Notice the advantage of growing fruit this way: no irrigation is required as the cliff above delivers rain and snow to the talus slope, which delivers it underground, where it is kept away from the sun. The rocks store heat for early ripening, which is tempered by the red bark of the saskatoons, which radiates it out again. The scourge of síyaʔ, berry-bush munching deer, is no issue here, as the stones provide a sufficient barrier to reduce their numbers. The bushes are closely gathered to facilitate picking by hand.P2240903

A slow waterfall in the Thompson River Gorge.

A culture that treats agriculture as a foundational economic crop, concentrated in monocultures and farmed by horse or tractor rather than human labour and using water piped down from the high country at great cost, would see no value in this land, as it could not be adapted to mechanization. Nonetheless, a village has lived off of it. I find this inspiring.

Land Crisis in Vernon

Yesterday I showed you an image of an apple crisis. Here it is again, from a different angle.


People are so hungry to connect with a farmer over a supermarket that they will pay an industrial farmer as much for his cull apples as they would pay for his good ones at a produce store, and half what they’d pay in a supermarket itself. The only thing is, he’s an industrial farmer, and not, perhaps, the thing they wish to support. For instance, that fence? It prevents deer from migrating up and down the hills, as they need to do, and forces them to wander through neighbourhoods, where they get labelled “problem deer” and get shot. As for the land itself, look:



Yes, mud. A tractor made that, hauling those apples out. This is what has been created out of this grassland soil after a hundred years: hard-packed, water repelling mud. 10,000 years of soil creation has been negated in 100 years. I don’t think that’s what people wish to pay for either. I think that an adjustment will come: either farmers will get the idea, or people will. That it all has to happen within an industrial metaphor makes it harder. Those are, however, only human issues. For the land, the issue is clear: stop this or the land will die.

Apple Crisis in Vernon

Apples for sale by the bag.P1550110 Looks nice, huh! Look more closely. Here are some Ambrosias.


See all that marking? These apples are worth zero. In a modern world of cosmetic fruit, these can’t be sold, so they’re being sold off the back of a 5-ton truck for $8 per10 pound bag — as if this were a family farm and not an agribusiness.


That’s more than the farmer would get if they were cosmetically perfect. This situation won’t last. I saw this before in the 1970s. Troubled times are back.

Beautiful Green Apples from Russia

You can see why Adam just had to bite.



Transparents, Second Picking (in my milk pail)

The greatest contribution of Russia to world civilization. The name comes from the transparent skin, if you peel it as finely as you can with a sharp knife.

The things are sour, though. Great for pies and applesauce and juice but for fresh eating, well, Adam, my boy, they’ll make the eyes bug out of your head. When the Okanagan had a fruit processing industry, there was a demand for these beauties. Now, you’re lucky if you find a tree anywhere, and that’s a crying shame, because I can imagine a few hundred acres planted in transparents, with juice and sauce and pies to put all others to shame. Instead, we have fast food service jobs. Can you imagine a civilization [sic] in which flinging burgers in an industrial kitchen smelling of fry grease is preferable to celebrating one of the delights of life on earth? Talk about poverty. Tonight in this house, we had apple crisp with the last five of these, just in time for the first peaches. Apples before peaches. Adam, you should have waited, man (but I’m glad you didn’t.)

A Bad Spring for Ants

Here are some apple blossoms, sweet as can be.P1250569Here are some after the weaver ants got at them.


They eat out the core to get at the nectar. Bees are gentler about this. The ants, though, are hungry. Obviously. This small backyard orchard I was visiting is clear of bugs, because of thick layers of mulch, made from chipped trees. It’s a great non-chemical way to keep the asparagus beetles down…


The beetles have to go up and down through six inches of the stuff night and day. They can’t manage it. They don’t. It seems, though, that the desert it creates, as organic as can be, just isn’t good for the ants, so they turn to a starvation diet: apple blossoms. Who knew!


Complex environments have their advantages.



Remember Those Cherry Trees I was Pruning

At the beginning of April? Yes? No? Well, here they are again, as April opens into the light.

April 4, 2014 … Harold has gone to photograph bluebirds!

And just a few days back? Here are the cherries in full blossom. Imagine the fruit! The trees will be red with it. What a joy to have helped the trees find this balance.

P1250353People call this work? I’ve moved on to the apples.

P1250367Spartan Tree in Its Last Years

Note the dead branches, from sour sap…but not dead yet!

And to think that all orchards like this have been torn out and replaced with either houses or with industrial, high density blocks, grown with fertilizers and hormones, pruned with hedge clippers, to last ten years before being ripped out. Why, with orchards like that, you couldn’t do this …P1250383

…you couldn’t prune a man’s trees long after he was dead, and by following what he did in the past be with him … work with him in fact… and learn, and be together. Yes, it’s still possible to prune as an art form, here and there. Don’t let anyone tell you that fruit-growing is an industry. That is only a statement that the ignorant make.