Nerves of Steele
By Tom Walker
By Tom Walker
“I’m behind in my pruning but it will happen in due time. I do it all myself.” – Fred Steele. Photo by by Tom Walker
Kelowna orchardist and B.C. Fruit Growers Association president, Fred Steele, speaks with the clear articulation and presence you would expect from someone with a 30-year career in radio.
He’s an excellent storyteller and, like any good media person, he looks for the middle ground. Words like “cooperate” and “consult” come up often. When Steele looks back over guiding the BCFGA in this, its 125th anniversary year, he thinks the organization is heading in a positive direction. But first, we have to talk music and poetry.
“The boys are in the studio over in Spain right now,” Steele explains. He is co-writing an album, entitled Savage Steele, with Pat Savage, a bluesman who performs across Europe. He explains how they send the material back and forth over the Internet and plays the single they are just completing. It’s a warm, country blues tune.
Only then do we talk fruit growing.
“What I said when I became president was that this chair belongs to the BCFGA’s 550 members and I am merely going to occupy it for a while,” he says. “I think that this year  we have delivered. The main focus of almost everyone was the replant program and not just two years and $2 million.”
In late November, the B.C. provincial government announced they were providing $8.4 million in a seven-year program to assist growers to replant older low-value orchards with higher value varieties. The BCFGA will administer the program. Details are being finalized but, as with past replants, there will be a minimum of five and a maximum of 10 acres.
“That was our main goal and we got that one complete,” says Steele. “The program didn’t happen over night. We were building a relationship.”
The BCFGA decided early on that travelling back and forth to government offices in Victoria (a four to five hour drive through two mountain passes followed by a 90-minute ferry ride) was not the best use of their time.
“We did it by teleconference through the agriculture branch office here in Kelowna,” explains Steele.
When one person in the agriculture branch didn’t fully understand what growers were talking about, they arranged for him to be brought to the Okanagan Valley for a day.
“We took him to the research station in Summerland and then we took him to the farms and we showed him. You can’t just give a guy 10,000 trees and he can plant them.
“The ag guy got to see what cherry people need and he got to see what apple people need.“
The $11.00 unit cost for quality rootstock is just a start. On average, it costs $25,000 to $30,000 to replant an acre in the Okanagan.
“This is all about looking ahead and saying where will we be in five to seven years,” he says. “The better varieties give us a chance to use the word profit for a change.”
Older apple varieties, like Red or Golden Delicious, return nice cents per pound to the grower, while the new Ambrosia, developed through BCFGA subsidiary Summerland Varieties Corporation (formerly PICO), can get 50 cents per pound. The late season Stacatto cherry, also managed by SVC, is being planted extensively.
Building a strategic plan has been important for the executive in 2014.
“Every government department said to us: ‘Where is your strategy?’ The last one we had ran out two years ago,” Steele says. “We’ve had to consult with cherries and pears and prunes and the organic people and the packing house and SIR (sterile insect release program) because it’s not our program, it’s their program. We want to represent everyone.
“Some people say you should downsize the industry to fit the market you are in. But it doesn’t matter if it’s not profitable. So we have to go in the other direction, and that’s where we are going.”
Expansion, with government support, is part of long-term plans.
“I think the government is looking to increase acreage. They talk jobs, innovation and export. We have built a progressive relationship with the provincial government, we’re building a better one all the time with the federal government.”
The export market
“We have had considerable interest from lower levels in New Zealand to get a reciprocal agreement to make up for short falls in off season,” explains Steele.
Fruit would come into B.C. pre-sorted but then be graded and packed in local plants to give workers employment in the off season and help keep costs down. It would also give B.C. growers access to New Zealand export markets.
“What we are trying to do is provide fresh fruit all year round instead of stored fruit. They can piggyback our fruit into markets when they run short, and we can piggyback their fruit in because we are all partners in the same. It’s a lot better than trying to beat each other up.”
A new trade deal signed recently with South Korea provides the kind of opportunity the BCFGA are looking for.
“People ask me: ‘Why do you want to go back to exports?’ Well, there are growing middle incomes in Southeast Asia and those people want better quality fruit. They tell officials that they want Canadian product first choice and B.C. product first choice.”
Quality for home markets and overseas is an important goal.
“It used to be that you just picked everything off the tree and put it in the bin, and it didn’t matter if it was poor colour or coddling moth,” Steele says. “But, I think that in the long run, it became one of the ills of the industry.”
If BCFGA has their way, that quality will not include the new non-browning GM Arctic Apple, developed by a private biotech company in the Okanagan and now seeking approval from U.S. and Canadian officials. The BCFGA denounced it in the fall of 2013 when they wrote letters to federal health and agriculture ministers to request the regulatory process for the Arctic Apple be suspended.
“What do you want the apple for?” asks Steele. “We already have a non-browning apple, the Ambrosia. If you can get two to four hours out of an apple not browning, what more do you need? Would you want to eat that salad the next day?
“People want honesty,” Steele adds. “Why would you take your whole reputation and throw it up in the air? It’s a risk that we don’t need to run.”
Steele predicts 2015 will be a steady year following “extremely good years” in 2012 and 2013. But there will be some challenges, he warns. Northwest U.S. growers are sitting with 160 million boxes of apples.
“The biggest problem is that they don’t have access to the Russian market with the Ukrainian situation. I’ve sat down with our general manager, Glen Lucas. We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a question of when (there will be U.S. dumping), not if. We’ve asked for shipments coming into Canada to be monitored for price. We’ve engaged a trade lawyer to prepare and contacted other provinces to put them on board. We’ve talked to the management of the packinghouses and the independents and we’re prepared. If the U.S. dumps into this market, we will initiate trade action.”
At home, Steele isn’t sure if he will access the replant program for his 11-acre orchard, located on the outskirts of Kelowna. His main crop is Macintosh with blocs of Gala, Spartan and Red Delicious.
“Every year, I think I might replant my Red Delicious. And then they grow big and I make money on them. And it becomes the question: ‘Do I have time to replant now?’”
He’s considering juice apples for expanding local cideries or perhaps hazelnuts.
“I’m behind in my pruning but it will happen in due time. I do it all myself.”
Steele is optimistic for fruit growing in B.C.
“We’ve got a lot of things started and we can let others complete them as there are probably a lot people with a hell of a lot more know how than I have. I’m just foolish enough to believe we can do it.”
And if it doesn’t work out?
“Well, I’ve been working on plans for an Internet radio station to talk about – what else – farm issues.”