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Okanagan producers eye new crops in face of climate pressures

Volatile weather prompt shift towards vegetables, flowers and other ground crops in B.C.'s Okanagan
Farmers markets, restaurants and local retailers seen as new sales channels.

The devastating losses for wine and some fruit producers in the Okanagan in the past few years has some growers shifting their focus and looking to diversify.

At operations like Paynter’s Fruit Market in West Kelowna, Gatzke’s Orchards in Lake Country and McMillan Farms in Kelowna they are banking on vegetables, flowers and other ground crops.

“We’re planting so many more musk melons, cantaloupe and watermelons this year, because of the loss of the peaches,” Paynter’s owner/operator Jennay Oliver told Castanet after extreme cold in January wiped out her peaches and apricots.

Alan Gatzke said his peach, apricot and cherry crops were also significantly damaged, but because he has a diversified farm, it’s easier to plant more vegetables and other ground crops.

Ron McMillan has decided to put in more sunflowers, to supplement his usual crop of pumpkins that has been impacted by heat and cold in recent years. He also considered adding hops to his fields, but couldn't find a reliable buyer. He says climate change has been top of mind for growers in the Okanagan for quite some time.

A wake up call

“I think this is a wake-up for people who are non-farmers. I think the farmers have been realizing something has been going on for a while, have been sounding the alarm, but not everybody’s been listening,” McMillan said.

Gatzke adds that there’s no doubt in his mind that the weather has been more volatile in the last decade, pointing to the 2021 heat dome and temperatures below -25 over the past two winters.

McMillan says growers will have to adapt to the increasingly severe weather events.

“One thing you’re going to see is there’s going to be a lot of changes going on as people try to find ways to make this work.

“It’s here and we have to adapt and keep trying to do things to keep ahead of it,” he adds.

Ground crops come with challenges

For those who put all their eggs in one basket, finding a new source of revenue will be tougher. The BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food says it’s common practice for producers to diversify to mitigate losses, but ground crops also face challenges developing a sales model and end market for their products. The ministry suggests looking at direct to consumer sales through farmers markets, restaurants and local retailers.

Producers looking for information about Ministry support or accessing programs should contact our AgriService BC at 1-888-221-7141 or [email protected].

Vineyards and fruit growers in BC can tap into a $70 million replant program this year to help them grow hardier, climate resistant varieties. It’s anticipated approximately 1,000 producers will access the fund. The ministry is also working with industry associations to develop planting guidelines that position the province to adapt and perform will in the face of the changing climate, pest, disease and market pressures.