Kamloops residents have for years been growing cherries in their backyards, with some wondering why the sweet, ruby-coloured fruit doesn’t line summer stands, as it does in the Okanagan.
That’s about to change.
By the summer of 2021, locally grown cherries are expected to be available a half-hour from downtown Kamloops as fourth-generation Okanagan cherry growers are planting roots in the Thompson Valley, harkening back to the days when apple orchards were abundant in Brocklehurst and Valleyview.
“To my knowledge, there’s never been [cherry orchards in the Kamloops area],” David Geen told KTW.
“Walhachin development, they had primarily apples. There was some soft fruit, as well. But since that time, there’s not been a commercial cherry orchard in the Thompson Valley.”
The Lake Country-based cherry grower farms 850 acres of cherries in the Okanagan, from Vernon to Kelowna via Coral Beach Farms, which sells cherries under the Jealous Fruit label in the Okanagan and to global markets.
The company does its own packing and marketing and ships to 25 countries around the world, including the United States and China.
Geen said the company is diversifying, with plans for a new retail operation near Kelowna Airport, in addition to a multi-million dollar orchard and small retail operation in Pritchard, about 30 minutes east of Kamloops. It will not include you-pick cherries.
Work is underway. Last spring, 58 acres of cherry trees were planted on the north side of the Thompson River, just upstream from the Pritchard Bridge. Next spring, another 170 acres of cherry trees will be planted, as well as 25 acres of honey crisp and ambrosia apple trees.
With roughly 450 cherry trees per acre, the orchard will produce more fruit than the local market can handle and, in addition to fruit, the orchard will need 10 to 12 permanent full- and part-time jobs and up to 200 seasonal pickers during summer months.
Geen’s great-grandfather first planted an orchard in the Okanagan Valley in 1903. Geen’s grandfather, father and great-uncles later got involved in farming.
Geen said the company purchased the Pritchard property in fall of 2016. Since then, weather stations have been monitoring area temperatures. The upper bench was determined to be well-suited for growing cherries, due to drainage and hillside protection that provides temperatures slightly warmer than the valley bottom.
Part of the attraction of the Thompson Valley, Geen said, is that cherries don’t like to be wet and the region is dry.
Historically, the Kamloops area has been home to many apple orchards. The Orchards Walk development in Valleyview is aptly named for its sweet, crisp history.
Still, the local apple orchards did not survive to compete with their Okanagan counterparts.
Kelowna is also aptly nicknamed The Little Apple, perhaps the most telling sign of how the two communities’ agricultural industries turned out. Kelowna is nicknamed for its orchards, while Kamloops, pays homage to former orchards now covered by a housing development.
Geen said several extremely cold winters spanning a 20-year-period — 1949 to 1968 — were “catastrophic” for fruit trees and deterred farmers in the Kamloops area.
A vineyard planted in Ashcroft in the 1980s was killed by the cold winter of 1985.
However, times, they are a-changing and so is the climate.
Based on his monitoring in the past few years, Geen noted the Thompson Valley is only slightly colder than the Okanagan Valley.
He said he is encouraged by the success of vineyards in the Kamloops area, noting grapes are more difficult to grow than are cherries.
“We’re seeing in general, with global warming, the extreme weather temperatures — they get cold — but it’s not to the extent to what it was,” Geen said.
“It’s good and bad. On average, our temperature is going to be slightly warmer and, on average, the winters are going to be slightly warmer. The weather is also more volatile, which is not good in terms of rain storms and thunder storms, droughts and all that.
“I think, on balance, the Thompson Valley gives me a level of comfort that the odds of an extreme weather event were lower than they once were.”
The next steps include installing irrigation, continued work with First Nations with respect to archeological sites identified on the land and planting the bulk of the trees next spring.
Geen said trees planted last year will start producing cherries in July of 2021.
As to whether other Okanagan cherry growers will follow Geen into the Thompson region, he said has taken calls from growers.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he said.
“People will sit back for two or three more years and see whether or not I fall on my face, before they follow suit.”