By Lyonel Doherty
Pinder Dhaliwal always knew that the farm was his home no matter what career he chose to follow.
And that’s exactly what the new president of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association fell back on after exploring several jobs in his youth.
The 48-year-old farmer from Oliver was recently elected to take over the helm of the BCFGA after former president Fred Steele stepped down.
Dhaliwal was vice-president of the association for the past five years, so he knows the drill.
“I know the people in provincial and local government, so I can communicate the concerns that growers have.”
Dhaliwal’s passion for growing began in 1981 when his parents bought a farm in Oliver, a time when interest rates were 21 per cent.
He attended the local high school and worked on the farm until he graduated in 1988.
“A lot of high school students (then) worked on their parents’ farm,” he recalled, but noted not as many young people do that now because of better opportunities.
“My parents said go to school and get a degree . . . (don’t worry) the trees will still be here (if you want to come back).”
Economics and criminology was Dhaliwal’s calling in Okanagan College and Simon Fraser University. He worked at the US border crossing in the summer time, interviewing travellers and inspecting their vehicles. He enjoyed the job because it was “different every day.”
Dhaliwal also obtained a bachelor of education degree and was a teacher-on-call in Oliver and Penticton.
But the father of two was continually drawn into farming and became more involved in agricultural issues.
“It’s the freedom,” he said. “You’re not anchored down. It’s the freedom and being out with nature.”
Dhaliwal also pointed out that he likes the challenge that fruit growing offers and working in a crucial industry that puts food on the table.
“We take it (food) for granted. The kids in urban areas think it’s grown in grocery stores.”
Dhaliwal said it’s quite amazing to watch a fruitlet turn into a ripe cherry, then watch it being picked and packed, then make its way to a store shelf.
But a lot has certainly changed in how fruit is processed and sold these days, he pointed out. For example, cherries used to be picked and placed in a box with their leaves. They were then loaded onto a truck and driven to Vancouver to be sold. But then hydro-cooling came and everyone wanted that, and technology progressed to the point where fruit was automatically sized and sorted by machinery. Throw in food safety and you’ve added even more steps to the process.
You don’t have to tell Dhaliwal that farming can be like a crapshoot these days. With mother nature throwing extreme weather at you, it’s a frustrating career that can keep you up at night.
Dhaliwal said last year’s flooding and extreme heat wreaked havoc on some growers. This affected the 2017 apple crop that suffered from low prices due to size, colouring and quality issues.
The weather is definitely changing, the grower stated, adding he is noticing more extreme patterns, such as flooding, wildfires and high winds that negatively impact the industry.
Dhaliwal said he’s hoping the BC government keeps on top of the flood issue this year by ensuring local creeks are flowing clear and unobstructed.
Another challenge facing growers is securing an adequate labour force, Dhaliwal said. Currently, there appears to be a delay in processing applications for Mexican workers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), he explained.
Dhaliwal said this could be a hardship for local farmers who need a labour force to start pruning and thinning trees now.
“We need people at the right time (in this industry). It’s a worst nightmare for employers.”
Dhaliwal said the BCFGA is looking into this issue to see what can be done to move these applications along more quickly. He noted they normally see about 5,800 Mexicans come to B.C. every year through SAWP.
As the new president, Dhaliwal wants to make the industry stronger by nurturing the government’s replant program and getting more infrastructure funding for packing facilities.
As an answer to his prayers, the Ministry of Agriculture recently announced a $5 million Tree Fruit Competitiveness Fund to help growers update their equipment and infrastructure.
Former BCFGA president Steele said this fund will help with marketing and controlling new invasive pests such as the brown stink bug.
As Dhaliwal farms his 12.5 acres of cherries, apples, peaches and nectarines, he’s keeping a wary eye on a different four-legged pest that continues to damage crops, especially new plantings – urban deer. He said the BCFGA is working with the government to find a solution, such as perimeter fencing for the South Okanagan. He believes fencing would address this problem as well as cut down on motor vehicle accidents and ICBC claims.