David Machial in his orchard.
David Machial started working beside his dad in the orchards when he was a kid. “I’ve been working in this orchard for 28 years,” he jokes. “I don’t count the first year; you have to be able to walk before they put you to work.”
For the past six years, Machial has run one of his family’s orchards in Oliver. He has 10 acres, eight in apples, an acre and a half in cherries and the rest planted in apricots and nectarines. He recalls what it was like when he first took over the family farm.
“It was daunting,” he says from his Oliver home. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I grew up here and I thought I knew what I should do, but I was in over my head. Thankfully, for the first couple of years my dad and uncle were there to tell me what to do and when to do it. Now I am at a level where I can run the orchard by myself.”
Machial didn’t always want to take over the family farm. When he was 18, he went to university. “I left, but I missed the Okanagan and the orchards and the fresh fruit. I still wanted to be part of the industry. When I graduated from university in 2005, my options were to come home and farm, or go to Toronto and take market research. My parents started talking about selling the farm and I realized if I went to Toronto and didn’t like it, the farm might not be there when I came back. So I came home and told myself I’d give it five years. That five years has passed and I’m still here.”
Not only is he still here, he is very active in the industry. “I am on the board of directors for PICO (Okanagan Plant Improvement Corp.) now, which is owned by the BCFGA. They are responsible for licensing new fruit varieties, mostly cherry and apple. It has opened up my eyes to another branch of the industry.”
The biggest area of change Machial has experienced in the last six years is in the labour market. “We used to depend 100 per cent on the Canadian migrant worker. Now we are part of the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program (SAWP) and we bring in workers from Mexico,” he explains. “There is a perception that we are bringing in cheap labour. That’s not true. It’s about the same as what we would pay Canadians when all the money is factored in, maybe a little more, but they are reliable so it’s worth it. Our last year without them was a nightmare. I went through 24 different people and all I really needed was two good, steady workers.”
It’s taken a bit of adjustment on both sides when it comes to the amount of work to be done. “Our first year we had a bit of a dispute because we weren’t providing them with enough hours. We couldn’t believe it,” exclaims Machial. “We came out of cherry season doing 12 hour days. When that stopped, they were annoyed because they wanted to work more. In between our cherries and apples, we try to keep them busy with weeding and stuff.”
Machial brings the same workers in every year, which makes life easier for all concerned. “That is huge because they know your farm, what to do and where everything is,” he says.
Despite the learning curve, Machial loves being a farmer. “What I love about farming is the same as what I hate about it. It’s a huge challenge,” he says. “Going into the last cherry season it rained for three days straight. We were culling about 40% of our fruit. Then we got a heat wave and the fruit cooked on the tree. Then it rained again and we got a windstorm. I just thought, ‘My God, what else is going to get thrown at me.’ I was getting four hours sleep and wondering why I was doing this. Then I got to the end of it all and saw the quality product we gave our customers. It’s a sense of accomplishment. Not only did we survive, we covered our packing and picking costs.”
Machial knows that he is in the minority, as far as farmers go. There are very few young farmers out there and even less resources to attract them. “There has to be more of a financial incentive for young farmers,” he says. “A lot of kids that grew up on farms don’t go into it because they aren’t guaranteed a salary. My parents are lucky; they have two orchards and I am running one. Other families only have one orchard and they aren’t ready to retire yet, or the parents are waiting to sell the land for their retirement money.”
When asked what he thought could be done to change things for young farmers he had this to say. “I’m not sure what the solution is. Either land values have to come down or the return coming off the orchard has to increase. Buying land is not an option with the prices in the Okanagan. What bank in their right mind is going to give a loan to a 28 year old without assets?”
Machial knows he is truly one of the lucky ones who gets to spend his days doing what he loves.