BCFGA leaders

B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association vice-president Peter Simonsen, left, and president Pinder Dhaliwal were in Victoria earlier this month to lobby the provincial government for concessions to help orchardists.

These are desperate times, according to B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association president Pinder Dhaliwal.

“Apple returns have been a disaster for the past three years, and orchardists are going into debt to survive,” said Dhaliwal, who was acclaimed president for a second two-year term at the association’s 131st annual general meeting Wednesday in Kelowna.

“We need to stabilize these conditions if we are to survive.”

Dhaliwal expects to spend most of his time as president advocating for the continued existence of the Okanagan tree-fruit industry.

“It’s of the upmost importance we keep this traditional industry alive,” said Dhaliwal, whose family has 12 hectares of apples, cherries, peaches and nectarines in Oliver.

“Growers support each other and our association executive is strong, so we will get through this.”

How the sector can thrive once again was outlined at the association’s two-day convention earlier this week at the Coast Capri Hotel.

Okanagan orchardists are making an average of 14 cents a pound return on their 2019 apple crop.

However, the cost to grow those apples is 25 cents a pound.

Rainy spring weather followed by spates of extreme heat in the summer affected apple quality, and the Americans dumping their apples in the Canadian market drove prices down.

Growers have complained of tough conditions for decades, but 2019 marks the lowest returns and most dire circumstances.

To recover, the association has a 10-point plan that requires government concessions and a revamp of B.C. Tree Fruits, the co-operative that packs and markets the fruit of the 500 members of the association.

“B.C. Tree Fruits is going to do a deep dive into efficiencies and structure to come up with savings and seek more upper-end markets willing to pay more for our high-quality, high-cost-of-production fruit,” said association general manager Glen Lucas.

The 10-point plan includes the federal-provincial AgriStability insurance program paying out more and quicker; a duty on U.S. apples dumped in Canada; rebates of provincial sales tax tax, irrigation water fees, insurance premiums and sterile insect release program fees; interest-free operating loans for orchardists; provincial institutions buying more apples; and the creation of an apple commission and apple export team to seek more markets and better long-term solutions for the tree-fruit industry.

There are about 6,070 hectares of tree fruits in the Okanagan-Similkameen.

The 500 orchardists make about $119 million a year in revenue, which represents $220 million a year worth of packed fruit and a $776-million annual total industry economic impact.

Dhaliwal said one thing that is running smoothly for the industry is labour programs that see 3,500 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean help out annually with the harvest, and 4,500 youth from Quebec and Ontario arriving to help out, too.

Dhaliwal grew up in Oliver on the family orchard purchased by his father, Major Dhaliwal, in 1982.

He went to Okanagan College and Simon Fraser University to study economics and criminology and earn an education degree.

He worked at the Canada-U.S. border as a crossing guard and as an on-call teacher in Oliver and Penticton.

However, he was drawn back to the family business because it was his passion.

“That’s why it’s so important for me to advocate for this industry and way of life,” said Dhaliwal.

Dhaliwal is joined on the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association executive by vice-president Peter Simonsen of Penticton and directors Sukhdev Goraya of Kelowna, Deep Brar from the South Okanagan, David Dobernigg of Vernon, Ravinder Bains of Cawston, Avi Gill from the North Okanagan and Talwinder Bassi from the South Okanagan.