TRANSCONTINENTAL FARM TOUR: Crossing Canada with Don Lotter

Small-scale vertical integration at a roadside fruit stand farm in British Columbia
Over 60 fruits and vegetables on 10 acres, a remote location, a short growing season and a pernicious pest: There are plenty of challenges for organic growers Doug and Michelle Nimchuk. But business is good.

By Don Lotter

Keremeos, British Columbia. Posted May 11, 2004.

The fruit stand was probably the 50th I had passed in the last hour, but it caught my eye because it said “Organic Cherries.” Cherries are supposed to be pretty much impossible to grow organically in BC. Besides, the huge, hilarious sign depicting a space shuttle craft, full of “organic” fruit, was irresistible. So I stopped.

This is very near the southern part of the Okanagan Valley, BC’s fruit growing and wine-producing region. Keremeos sits in its own little valley, the Similkameen. Nestled between rocky peaks and ridges, the Similkameen Valley is the “organic capital” of BC, if not Canada – some 50% of farms here are certified organic, according to local organic farmers.

The proprietors of the fruit stand, called the Fruit Shuttle, are a young couple in their early thirties, Doug and Michelle Nimchuk. The Fruit Shuttle store is certified organic, and as it turns out, is supplied nearly completely by their own production from the fields behind the store.

The Fruit Shuttle is a family operation. Doug’s parents, Jerry and Kathy, help in the production. The four of them bought the ten acre Fruit Shuttle farm and fruit stand just this past year, early 2003.

The previous owner, Paul Meikle had bought the farm in 1980, farming conventionally. He built the Fruit Shuttle store in 1983, went organic in 1990, and last year sold the property to the Nimchucks.

Doug, who is from Vancouver, BC, got his start in organic farming in 1998 with the Canadian branch of World-Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF, also known as Willing Workers in Organic Farming). In the WWOOF program, volunteer workers, usually from overseas, are placed with organic farmers. Doug did a season on an organic farm in nearby Osoyoos. Later he leased a one acre orchard and began transitioning it to organic for a couple of years. He also managed a vineyard. Doug and Michelle were married in 1997 and have two small children.

39 varieties of fruit, 23 varieties of veggies, all on 10 acres

The Fruit Shuttle farm, directly behind the fruit stand, produces about every marketable fruit and vegetable that can grow in southern BC – six varieties of peach, two of nectarine, four of apricot, four of cherry, seven of plum, eight of apple, one variety of pear, a dozen varieties of pepper, four of tomato, two of garlic, two of eggplant, three of sweet corn, ten of squash, five of melon, and two varieties of grape.

Nearly all of the Fruit Shuttle farm production is sold right there at the fruit stand – now that’s small scale vertical integration! The key is the Nimchucks’ location. The business adage – “location, location, location” was never more appropriate than here. The Fruit Shuttle is located on a trans-BC highway (#3) that is not a freeway – it’s a two-lane highway, from which cars can easily pull over when they see something they like, like “organic fruit”.

Interestingly though, most of the Fruit Shuttle’s business comes from repeat customers who regularly drive the route from Vancouver to the Kootenay region in central and eastern BC. The Similkameen Valley is half-way.

Certification in Canada: Change is in the wind

The Fruit Shuttle is certified organic by Living Earth of Oliver, BC. Living Earth is one of some 15 regionally-based organic certification bodies in BC, and which make up the umbrella organization, Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC).

Canada does not yet have a national organic standard, as the EU and U.S. now do. Until now the Canadian organic “community” or “industry” (depending on your view of organic food) has been using the voluntary Canada Organic Standard that organizations like COABC helped define and help to implement, using their own certification guidelines.

Canada’s ministry of agriculture, Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada, began the process of setting up public meetings for drafting the Canadian organic program earlier this year. (EDITOR'S NOTE: The Canadian Standards will be up for a vote by the Standard Committee in early June, when the two appendices (Guidance Document and Permitted Substances List) will be sent for comment.) Experts say that implementing a national organic standard will facilitate international trade.

Like the U.S. process was, this one is likely to be contentious, although Canadians tend to be much more polite in these matters than Americans.

 

The southern Okanagan is a picturesque area and gets lots of tourist traffic during the summer months, which is the other significant customer base for the Fruit Shuttle. Travelers crossing Canada, like I was, can take this route through BC and still easily hook up with the Trans-Canada highway in Alberta or end up in Vancouver.

As I talk with Michelle, several cars of people who appear to be tourists stop in and buy fruit. Michelle, baby in hand, works the cash register and chats. When she needs to attend to the kids, Kathy or Jerry will step in and work the register. According to Doug, having his parents there to help them is a huge boost. “Of course there are always family conflicts and stuff, but without them, I don’t think we’d be able to do it.”

While the Fruit Shuttle location is great, it has its challenges. It is one of scores of fruit stands on Highway 3, although heading east, it is one of the first. Most of the fruit stands cluster around Osoyoos, 50 km to the east. The other challenge is that this is an area that goes into full-on freezing winters – so for seven months of the year they shut down the store. The selling season runs from July 1 through October.

The many challenges of pest management

The challenges of growing so many different fruits and vegetables are many. Powdery mildew hits apples and peaches, peach twig borer hits peaches and apricots, the western cherry fruit fly (Rhagoletis indifferens) is a serious pest of cherries, as well as the pear slug (Caliroa cerasi, the larva of a sawfly). Doug uses Bt (Dipel) for the peach twig borer and lime sulfur applications for the pear slug.

For powdery mildew on apples he uses a sulfur compound with the tradename Kumulus. Doug makes a spray for general plant health from a mixture of seaweed extract and a 2% solution of a natural soap made from horsetail and (Equisetum), called Heavenly Horsetail (available at www.organichealth.com).

The horsetail strategy is notable because silica, which horsetail has in significant amounts, has been shown to be an inducer of systemic resistance (to disease and insect attack) in plants. Research needs to be done on this.

Paul Meikle, the former owner of Fruit Shuttle, used to reject a third of his apple crop due to coddling moth. But no more – the coddling moth problem has been reduced virtually to zero with the highly successful provincial government-run Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release program (www.oksir.org).

A model for regional pest control strategy, the program raises, irradiates (sterilizes), and releases moths throughout BC’s apple growing region. The number of sterile moths is high enough that most mating of non-sterile wild moths occurs with sterile individuals.

The black cherry aphid is generally controlled adequately via the buildup of natural enemies. Aphidoletes aphidimyza, a midge-type of fly (Diptera:Cecidomyiidae) whose larvae are predators of aphids, is the main natural enemy.

The Similkemeen Valley is ideally suited for growing fruit, at least for Canada. The Similkameen’s wind is a big plus. It keeps things dry and increases the number of days between frosts, compared to neighboring fruit growing areas. Brown rot (stone fruits) and scab (apples, pears) are less of a problem.

Special strategies for a special problem: the western cherry fruit fly

The western cherry fruit fly (WCFF) has made it near impossible to grow cherries organically in BC. The WCFF is native to the northwest and is found on native cherry species. After pupating in the soil, they emerge toward the end of the season and fly to the nearest cherry tree, and after 5-10 days of feeding and mating they lay eggs underneath the cherry surface. The larvae take about 25-30 days to emerge, which by this time is often after harvest.

It turns out there is really no secret to growing organic cherries without WCFF problems at the Fruit Shuttle farm. According to Meikle, the Fruit Shuttle cherry acreage is small (1 1/3 acres) and the farm (and valley) is isolated from major cherry growing areas. If there were lots of cherry orchards around, it probably would have been impossible to grow them organically, according to Meikle.

Two strategies against WCFF are important at Fruit Shuttle, according to both Nimchuk and Meikle. One is to very thoroughly strip the orchard of cherries at harvest and get all of them off of the ground, in order to eliminate the WCFF larvae’s ability to pupate in the soil and over-winter. As long as no neighbors have cherries left on their trees, this strategy is effective.

Farm-at-a-Glance

Fruit Shuttle farm
Keremeos, British Columbia

Operation: Organic orchard and vegetable production

What is grown: Six varieties of peach, two of nectarine, four of apricot, four of cherry, seven of plum, eight of apple, one variety of pear, a dozen varieties of pepper, four of tomato, two of garlic, two of eggplant, three of sweet corn, ten of squash, five of melon, and two varieties of grape.

 

On the average, however, according to fruit extension services in Washington state, on larger farms, about 10,000-20,000 fruit per acre remain in an orchard after harvest, and to remove them all is not cost-effective. So the sanitation strategy works only for small farms that are isolated from large cherry farms.

The other WCFF strategy used by Meikle and Nimchuk is the placement of ammonium carbonate strips in the orchard to attract the insect and trap it. Ammonium carbonate simulates the odor of rotting fruit. The attractant strips only work where there are low levels of the WCFF. It is not practical in orchards in areas where the WCFF can migrate in from neighboring farms in large numbers.

The WCFF has no known sexual attractant pheromones. The only pheromone that females produce is a repellant, believed to keep other females from laying eggs on a cherry fruit.

In 2003 the biological insecticide spinosad, approved for use on the WCFF in the U.S., was developed under the trade name Entrust for organic use and Success for conventional use. Spinosad is produced from a soil actinomycete Saccharopolyspora spinosa, and is the first of a new class of natural insecticides known as naturalytes. Canadian organic farmers are still waiting for approval of Entrust.

Off-season work never ends, from composting and pruning to starts and transplants

Although the Fruit Shuttle store closes at the end of October, the work season never really stops, except for blizzards. Doug starts pruning and spreading compost in December, as well as ordering seed.

Manure for composting comes from a nearby conventional turkey farm, with plenty of carbon in it in the form of sawdust. Nimchuk is also trying cow manure this year. This year he bought 72 yards each of turkey and cow manure. After composting down, and spread over 10 acres, the 140 yards of manure works out to about 2.5 tons of compost per acre – a standard application for an organic farm.

Seeding of flats for transplants is started at the end of February, and in April transplants start going in, and the money harvest starts June 1.

My own assessment is that the Nimchuks have a pretty good thing going – they just have to get a few years under their belts. However, when I asked Doug what his thoughts were on his and Michelle’s farming endeavor, he replied “Overwhelming.”