The new president of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association is distancing himself from his predecessor, Kirpal Boparai.
Vernon orchardist Jeet Dukhia was thrust into the top elected spot from the position of vice-president when Boparai resigned at an executive meeting Monday. Dukhia will serve only five weeks until the annual convention in Penticton in January and the election of a new executive.
"There was a grim feeling at the meeting when he announced he was resigning. We all feel bad, pretty sad. He had all the good intentions. He was a pretty hard worker, working hard for the growers," said Dukhia. "We are not perfect. We all make mistakes."
Boparai resigned after he was kicked out of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-op for selling his apples elsewhere. There were also allegations of threats and harassment of co-op employees, management and directors, a complaint he had not paid in full his Mexican farmworkers and concern he wouldn't work with the Sterile Insect Release program on a serious codling moth infestation in his East Kelowna orchards.
Dukhia said he was not friends with Boparai or any of the other members of the BCFGA executive
"I work closely with everybody to promote the causes of the growers. They are my business partners," he explained of their relationship.
Dukhia said he had "no idea" that Boparai was selling his apples elsewhere - according to the co-op - even though Boparai had a contract requiring him to take all his apples to the co-op.
"I know we don't do that in Vernon. I know all the growers in Vernon because I've been here 35 years. We sell to the co-op," said Dukhia. "Once you sign a contract, you have to abide by it. I will not do that. I like my co-op. I am committed to the co-op. Even if they have problems, we will try to rectify them."
Although he was a co-op member for more than three decades, Dukhia said he never heard the allegations of threats and harassment until they were published in this newspaper.
"I cannot confirm that because I was not there. I don't know if that's true or not. And Kirpal never mentioned that to me. The only time we meet each other is in the meetings. We don't talk his personal business. People who know me really well know I don't go into people's personal business. When I'm in the meeting, I want to talk business," he said.
Dukhia thinks Okanagan fruit growers now face competition from Washington state as a result of Premier W.A.C. Bennett signing the Columbia River Treaty, which provided cheap water and cheap power to the Wenatchee and Lake Chelan desert area.
Fruit production in the Okanagan has dropped to 17,000 from 53,000 acres , he said.
By comparison, that area of Washington state now has more than 100,00 acres of fruit production.
Vernon used to have three canneries to process vegetables and five fruit packinghouses, he noted. Now, there are none.
"We were doing pretty good before the Columbia River Treaty. Without fruit, without orchards and vineyards, what would we look like here in this valley? Very ugly and a $100-million, $150-million business goes down the drain."