Growers need to consider quite a few factors when choosing a co-op - including size.
Many new growers who have moved into the Okanagan and bought a farm ask for advice on how to best manage the farm they have bought. One of their first questions is: should I join the co-operative or not? Usually, when investigating their move to an orchard, a new orchardist hears negative comments about the co-operatives and the poor returns they can expect.
Whether or not you choose to become a member of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative, the largest in the Okanagan Valley, will depend on a number of factors. These include your ability as a grower, your orchard varieties, your co-operative attitude and potential as an independent marketer and so on. Many co-op growers do not understand the term co-operative.
Apples off the tree taste good, even from a neglected orchard. The challenge, when shipping to a major packinghouse, is to produce a visually perfect apple of the right variety, shape, colour and size that will store 8-10 months and meets the artificial visual perceptions of the supermarkets.
With some varietal exceptions, these apples, when shipped through the co-operative, pay well. If you can meet the criteria you will make money. It is the fruit that falls outside the strict parameters set by a major segment of the public (apples that don’t have “style”), that will not return good dollars from the co-operative. For the average and below average new grower the co-operative will be a disappointment.
Some people will buy an apple on its eating quality alone but reality is that presentation is a major part of North American retailing. If you just want to farm and produce a decent eating apple consider selling through the independent packers of which there are more and more popping up in the Okanagan valley each year.
This seems counter to the strategy of combining the four or five strong co-operatives of 10 years ago into one “super” co-op as a means of becoming more competitive but achieving the standards set at the co-operative is proving difficult for many growers.
Size isn’t everything! Compare the large and small. Be sure if you choose a small independent that they are a stable business with a good reputation. The small independent for example, has been in business for 20 years and successfully competes with the “big” co-operative for returns.
Growers who were successful at the “big” co-op often switched because they get better returns at a smaller house that is at liberty to pick and choose its producers. Your return will be influenced by the general quality of all growers in the co-op so you become penalized for the poor quality of others.
Other options are available such as marketing your own fruit through farmers markets. This requires some expertise in sales and a lot of traveling to markets. If you are capable, returns can be lucrative. To go this route you definitely need to have a market, some cold storage space and dependable transport set up well in advance.
The co-operative does have many advantages for competent growers who produce high quality fruit.
■ They have an established marketing system with the larger retail chains who take the bulk of the valley fruit.
■ They guarantee to members that they will take all of your fruit (assuming the varieties are commercial).
■ They supply services that can be unavailable to non-co-op growers and at reasonable cost.
■ They supply bins to the growers (as some smaller packers do), have modern storage facilities with CA (controlled atmosphere) storages and sell orchard chemical and fertilizer supplies direct to growers.
■ They supply field service (horticultural assistance) that assists growers with spray timing, pruning know-how, etc. This service is often needed by new growers; especially inexperienced growers and not readily available elsewhere.
In spite of the complaining one hears about the failures at the co-op level the main failure within the industry is at the farm level.
If you want to farm and are rich enough to buy into the orchard business, be sure you understand what makes the farm “co-op friendly.” For example, is your new orchard “positioned” for success? It is frustrating as a support person to be called into an orchard to give advice and be confronted with a hopeless situation. Trees that are planted at the wrong spacing, trees that are clearly suffering from years of neglect, varieties that are not commercially viable etc., and to hear the owner or lessee blame the low returns from this poor orchard on the packinghouse.
I would advise anyone planning to buy into a tree fruit farm and who is serious about farming (land speculators are not included) to hire a horticulturist to walk the property with you to point out the weaknesses in the plantings, the cost of necessary correction that might be required and the standard requirement necessary to ensure reasonable returns from the co-operative.
Many growers are operating successful farms without joining the co-op. Many growers are running successful farms within the co-operative system.