Joe Sardinha was a humble guy. He considered himself, above all else, an orchardist.
The son of Portuguese immigrants, he grew up on the family farm in Summerland and took over the 11 acres when he was ready to develop a career for himself 33 years ago.
“I have put a lot of effort into this orchard. When you have 11 acres, you know every tree personally,” he said during a 2012 interview.
But while Sardinha was more comfortable climbing ladders and pruning, there was far more to him than met the eye.
Sardinha, who died suddenly Saturday at the age of 52, was truly a leader and a visionary in the Okanagan’s tree fruit sector.
Over 11 years on the B.C. Fruit Growers Association executive, including seven as president, he fought tirelessly for the industry.
“I want to prove to the naysayers that the industry isn’t done. There is still an opportunity to be a success,” he said.
Sardinha was known for his smile and warm handshake, but he could be tenacious and to the point when dealing with government officials and particularly those bureaucrats who didn’t understand the economic importance of tree fruits.
He grew particularly frustrated with the shrinking budget within B.C.’s agriculture ministry.
“The province continues to lag behind other provinces in its support of agriculture,” he said.
He also had little time for retailers who sell imported fruit, often at a lower price than domestic produce.
“Retailers have to realize consumers are looking for local product. They are losing a great marketing tool,” he said.
Sardinha was a people person and it wasn’t unusual to find him surrounded by a large crowd. His personality was infectious.
He didn’t have any problems putting on a jacket and tie and hobnobbing with politicians, but he was at his best when he was one-on-one with growers walking among trees and talking shop.
In July 2009, he surveyed the damage after a torrential hail storm ripped apart entire apple crops throughout Vernon’s BX area. He wore the pain just as if it was his own.
“It’s very demoralizing. On the day it happens, you feel very lost,” he said.
Sardinha gained the respect of growers throughout the valley and his approach has been followed by Vernon’s Jeet Dukhia, who as the present BCFGA president, has defended the interest of farmers devastated by weather this summer.
There’s no question that the Okanagan’s tree fruit sector has seen better days. Even with record high prices right now, the cost of production is forcing many growers to consider their future. Foreign competition, government indifference and a consumer base focused more on price than quality are constant hurdles to overcome.
But despite the doom and gloom, Sardinha remained upbeat.
“If you don’t have any optimism, you’re putting up the white flag and the industry has been around too long to do that. Anyone interested in the industry is not prepared to surrender,” he said.
Sardinha was a genuine advocate not only for his industry but for the entire Okanagan. He will be missed.