South Okanagan fruit growers almost a month ahead of schedule

Warm weather might mean early fresh fruit now, but could mean problems for later crops if they are too early.

Darrell Block shows off the first cherries of the season at the Rai Produce fruit stand on Highway 3 near Osoyoos recently. Warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine have south Okanagan crops ripening several weeks ahead of schedule.

Darrell Block shows off the first cherries of the season at the Rai Produce fruit stand on Highway 3 near Osoyoos recently. Warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine have south Okanagan crops ripening several weeks ahead of schedule.

Whether its wine grapes or fruit, a warm spring has contributed to an early growing season.

“Last year, cherries were two weeks early and this year is a week earlier than that,” said Fred Steele, a fruit grower and president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association.

The variability of the weather can be a problem; a recent turn to rain just as the first cherry varieties are coming off the tree could be a problem.

“As soon as you get rain on them and the sun comes out, they swell and they split,” said Steele.

Long range forecasts are predicting a hot, dry summer and the possibility of drought conditions in B.C., but Steele said it’s too early to be sure of the summer weather.

“I don’t think anybody really knows. That’s the problem, we are three weeks ahead, almost a month, depending on where you are,” said Steele.

Warm weather might mean early fresh fruit now, but could mean problems for later crops if they are too early – apples and other fruit require cooler nights to fully mature and gain colour.

“You need those cool spells in order to enhance the growth of the fruit,” said Steele, explaining that continuous heat can cause the trees to slow their growth process later in the season.

“It is turning out to be a mixed bag and I am wondering if this isn’t an El Nino anomaly or the new normal. I think we need another year or two to figure it out,” said Steele, who added everyone from the Columbia Basin Water Board and the BCFGA is studying climate changes and how to adapt.

An early season also causes problems with finding people to pick the fruit — while foreign workers are brought in yearly, the schedule for that is timed to the usual seasoning of the fruit.

“Even for the young people to come from Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, the season is already starting and usually they are (arriving) towards the end of June when their school season is out, so now you have a shortage of labour in some cases, too,” said Steele.

Despite concerns, Steele said the mood is positive among growers.

“When you have a fresh crop like that for consumers, any time is a good time,” said Steele, adding that new varieties of cherries, combined with the weather, means extended availability.

“You are going to be close to Labour Day by the time you are finished with the cherry season and it used to be a five-week event,” said Steele, noting that the apple sector grew last year for the first time in 32 years.

“The mood for the future is a positive one. But I think there is some concern out here about water and other issues. There is always something, but on the other side of the coin, things usually work themselves out.”

Penticton Western News