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Backward Glances: Fruit picking in the Okanagan

Summer seems to have again ended with a bit of a bang; in this case a clap of thunder, and the rain sorely needed by our forests. The transition back into work and school is all too sudden as potato salad and barbecued hamburger goes off the menu to be replaced by mashed potatoes and roasts done in the oven. The joy of tree-fresh cherries and peaches is quickly replaced by amazing varieties of apples, both old and new. Apple orchards are now decorated by the big red bins as harvest begins. 

I was thinking about our beautiful Okanagan orchards and how important they are to both our economy and the ambience of the valley. Somehow though, their relative importance within this community has changed dramatically over the decades. The Okanagan is now much, much more diversified than it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Back then most people were involved in forestry and agriculture, more specifically, fruit crops. In those days the majority of families owed at least part of their living to producing or processing fruit. A lot of the time growers worked full or part-time at other jobs while still tending to their orchards. Mom worked for many years in the packing house but also worked our orchard while Dad was away. By far the biggest employers were our packing houses: the Oyama, Woodsdale and Winfield houses and Winoka at the Centre. In season, hundreds worked as packers and sorters, shippers and receivers, and in my case, box boy, the bottom of the totem pole. Managers like Cliff Fallow and Gordon Shaw were icons in the local industry. The work was hard, and while it didn’t pay very well it provided some badly needed cash to survive the approaching winter.

At ground level orchardists worked long, hard hours hoping and praying for a good crop, no hail and decent prices. That combination of good fortune was often elusive and crop insurance didn’t exist. As harvest approached, growers tried to build a roster of pickers, from both local and sometimes itinerant French Canadians. In the few years after 1956 it was not uncommon to see Hungarian refugees picking in local orchards. Many of us remember years when there weren’t enough pickers so the School Board made it permissible for students to miss school and help bring in the crop. One year when we were let out of school I picked for Matt Kobayashi in an orchard on OK Centre Rd. East, earlier owned by my uncle Allan Gibbons and later by Cliff and Lena Gunn. I wasn’t a great picker but being in an orchard on a beautiful September day sure beat being in class. The trees of the day were veritable giants, requiring at least a twelve foot ladder and sometimes a fourteen footer. Picture that against a contemporary apple tree that now could be picked from a step ladder.

Today most production is handled by “Winfield House”, the only survivor of the Packing Houses in this area, and big growers who run their own packing lines. While many locals are still employed they comprise a mere fraction of our area population. The old fashioned, labour intensive apple box was long ago replaced by the highly efficient bin that holds more than twenty boxes. The old box-making jigs and box-making machines, along with the once common hand trucks, have been retired to museums. We still hear French spoken in our orchards but increasingly the language heard is Spanish, used by the hard working Mexicans. 

Picking cherries and other crops provided many local kids, like me, the opportunity of making money by dint of hard work. Now, as then, the tree fruit industry is a challenging way for growers to make a living, with escalating costs, uncertain market prices and growing international competition. Another challenge is land development which increasingly puts growers and home owners in conflict. When a grower needs to put a spray on his crop at 6:00 a.m. when the winds are calm, it may not impress the newly arrived transplant from the big city. Planners profess a commitment to agriculture but their recommendations frequently suggest a greater interest in growing the tax base rather than in growing fruit.

Food production is essential to our local economy and the mere presence of our orchards and vineyards makes the Okanagan a more attractive and better place to live. So remember, make sure you’re buying local produce and think of the good old days when fruit production built this valley.

Rich Gibbons. Director, Lake Country Heritage and Cultrual Society

Source: Richard Gibbons’ column, Backward Glances, was originally published in the The Calendar.