BC cherry growers reel after January cold snap that damaged buds

The frost was especially destructive because temperatures were mild in the preceding weeks.

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This season will likely be the most challenging cherry growers have experienced in British Columbia, says a farmer and industry leader, after a widespread cold snap damaged trees and buds last month.

Sukhpaul Bal, president of the BC Cherry Association, said the deep freeze was especially destructive because temperatures were mild in the weeks before.

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The cherry trees did not have time to develop resistance to withstand temperatures that fell below -30 C in parts of the southern Interior, where most British Columbia cherries are grown, and the buds were unable to cope with the sudden drop, said.

“We’ve seen -25 here in Kelowna and Okanagan. We’re not saying we’ve never seen cold. But he’s a different guy,” said Bal, who runs Hillcrest Farm in Kelowna.

“If you’re plus five degrees for weeks and then within three or four days you go down to -25, -30, naturally, that’s going to be a problem.”

Bal’s association issued a statement this week saying cherry growers are “recovering” from the Jan. 12 cold snap, which threatens to “dramatically reduce” their harvest.

There won’t be a full picture of the loss and damage until the cherries begin to bloom, sometime between April and May, Bal said in an interview Wednesday.

But an analysis of the samples collected after the cold snap does not bode well.

“Unfortunately, in some of our growing areas in the Okanagan and Creston, farmers have had difficulty finding live buds within them,” Bal said.

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For those with significant damage, the “best-case scenario” would be to lose this year’s crop but emerge with healthy trees in 2025, he said.

Still, the financial impact on farms is “enormous” when a crop disappears, he added.

Bal said it’s too early to say what the impact will be on crops in 2025 and beyond.

“But it is certainly possible that trees in the most affected areas have suffered lasting damage and a recovery that could take years,” he said in the statement.

Bal said the effects of the deep freeze are made worse by the fact that it occurred while cherry growers are still recovering from a cold snap in 2020 and a heat dome that broke temperature records across the province in June. 2021.

“This is the one that finished us off,” he said.

“We just haven’t had a chance to recover and recover from other events.”

Bal said this year is the first time his association has approached the government for additional support, as cherry cultivation is becoming “almost impossible.”

The cherry industry has sought support through government programs, he said, but some of the funding is tied to the insurance value of the crops. It’s a “downward spiral” of support as producers see one bad season after another, Bal said.

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“We wanted to recover and get out of this on our own, but now we are telling the government that it is an almost impossible task.”

Before 2020, Bal said there were perhaps three “short harvests” in British Columbia’s cherry industry due to cold weather, but they were spread out over two decades.

As the climate changes, he said, extreme temperatures and fluctuations are becoming more frequent and severe in his community and beyond.

Bal compared the plight of cherries to “the canary in a coal mine,” as the industry has been seen as a “bright light” in Canadian agriculture.

A 2022 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada news release said the growth of the cherry industry has been a “great success story,” and that cherries have become the country’s second most exported fruit crop, behind the blueberries.

Canada’s sweet cherry exports reached $78 million in 2021, with British Columbia farmers producing 95 per cent of that volume, according to the release.

Bal said that as cherry growers struggle with potentially devastating losses, this indicates the need for greater support for agricultural producers who have been severely affected by wildfires, floods, heat waves and droughts in recent years.

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The seasonal outlook so far points to the likelihood of the drought continuing, he noted.

Bal is concerned about the mental health of the province’s cherry growers as conditions appear to be “getting worse and worse,” he said.

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