Is it progress, or history repeating itself?

A trip to the B.C. Okanagan area saw an interesting development in horticultural production that bore an eerie resemblance

A trip to the B.C. Okanagan area saw an interesting development in horticultural production that bore an eerie resemblance to what occurred about 100 years ago in the same area.

One can’t quite determine whether it’s the usual evolution in ag production, or history repeating itself.

Anyone who has travelled to the Okanagan area over the past 30 years can’t help but notice the explosion of vineyards and wineries that are arising virtually everywhere.

I lost track after counting more than 25, and there are even more spilling over into other areas. That compares to a mere handful of operations 30 years ago — it causes one to ponder what instigated this gold rush into building all these wine facilities and grape-growing operations.

Clearly, it’s not cheap to establish a vineyard — it’s a highly intensive type of horticulture that takes years to mature. It’s also not without risk — the biggest being weather.

The Okanagan area tends to be at the northern frontier of wine-grape growing, although new varieties and cultivation technology is improving the odds.

One presumes that the capital investment in even a modest wine/vineyard operation could be well into the million-dollar-plus range. Land costs alone are astronomical in the area and a number of acres are needed to establish a viable operation.

Add into that buildings, wine storage for a few years, labour costs etc. And, well, you get the picture. Oh, I forgot there is the matter of getting your wine listed and sold in liquor stores and restaurants — not an easy task, considering the vast number of wineries all competing for shelf space.

Upon noting the history of the area, one finds that about 100 years ago, there was a similar horticultural gold rush in the area. It seems back then the Okanagan-Kootenay area was deemed to be ideal for apple orchards. Land development companies bought up tracts of land and promoted the orchard idea to potential settlers primarily in the UK.

Promotion schemes painted idyllic pictures of planting a few acres of apples and then watching money grow on trees. It seems a lot of folks took the bait and within a 20-year period, almost every valley and benchland in the area that could grow apples and other tree fruits was populated by innocent new orchardists.

Fruit-packing companies sprung up everywhere to process the fruit and ship it all to market. Railways and lake paddle-wheelers shipped the fruit bounty of the remote area to markets across the country and even overseas. But alas, like so many schemes, the discipline of supply and demand took its toll and prices collapsed. For the fruit-growing region of the Okanagan and nearby areas, that has been the bane of growers for the past 80 years. And inevitably, it’s seen a steady decline in orchard acreage over those years.

There were some marketing schemes hatched to deal with low prices. The B.C. Tree Fruits organization was created and there even was a single desk-type tree-fruit marketing board.

The feds helped by setting up tariff walls to keep out cheaper U.S. apple imports. Canneries were even established. But trade policy and marketing approaches changed over the past 20 years. Tariffs were eliminated, the marketing board was terminated and the inevitable imports took over the domestic market.

The decline continued until the arrival of the vineyard and cottage winery boom. Apple orchards were torn up not just for vineyards, but also residential development — it seems the golden age for apple orchard owners had finally arrived.

But will the wild expansion in vineyards also reach its breaking point just like it did with apples. It has that feel to it — and agriculture has that nasty habit of repeating itself. One notes that whilst travelling south across the border into Washington state, you find truly industrial scale orchard operations with 1,000-acre-plus apple operations.

No such operations exist in Canada and they surely helped the demise of fruit production in this country. One also notes that there’s an even larger explosion of vineyards and wineries being established in the U.S. — even in Idaho and Montana! One can buy good quality wine in American liquor stores for $6 a bottle — I suspect there is a message in that if history is to be heeded.

One wishes those that are making substantial investments in Okanagan vineyards well — but the future looks ominous. But this being B.C., perhaps there is another future for this area if the vineyard dream collapses — maybe in 10 years, there will be a boom in creating legal marijuana plantations — and so the cycle continues.

— Ahead of the Heard

 


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