Fighting the good fight

Joe Sardinha may be stepping down as B.C. Fruit Growers Association president but still nurturing his Summerland orchard

Some would say Joe Sardinha is a sucker for punishment. But he completely disagrees.

Despite the cost of production constantly eroding returns and indifference from government and the public, Sardinha continues to nurture his 11-acre orchard in Summerland after 32 years.

“We all feel at times, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but I am old school,” said Sardinha who steps down as B.C. Fruit Growers Association president Friday.

“It’s a new year and perhaps this year will be better. I enjoy growing the best fruit I can.”

Sardinha grew up in an orchard and when the time came to leave high school, he tried university for a year.

“I was tired of being indoors and in classes. I wanted to get back to what I love,” he said.

Sardinha eventually took over his parent’s orchard and he’s never looked back — fully embracing tree replanting and getting involved behind the scenes in the politics of the sector.

Through 11 years on the BCFGA executive, including seven as president, he led a constant battle to expand government participation.

“The province (of B.C.) continues to lag behind other provinces in its support of agriculture,” he said.

“I don’t know how much more you can cut back on the agriculture ministry?”

Growers will tell you that they aren’t looking for a handout from taxpayers, but they want the government to fulfill a commitment it made in the 1970s when the Agricultural Land Commission was created. Sufficient support programs were promised in return for growers losing the ability to use their land for non-farm purposes.

Unable to develop, some cash-strapped farmers have yanked trees out, leaving their acreage vacant.

“That translates into less fruit being produced and it’s one more challenge towards a viable industry,” said Sardinha.

Sardinha also takes aim at grocers who sell imported fruit, often at a lower price.

“Retailers have to realize consumers are looking for local product. They are losing a great marketing tool,” he said, adding that many customers are starting to look beyond the price.

“They look at where it was grown and how it was grown.”

Sardinha doesn’t fault growers who have left the collective marketing program and independently sell fruit to try and maximize returns. But he doesn’t believe fragmentation is the answer.

“We shouldn’t be competing against each other. We should be competing against foreign competition,” he said.

It should be pointed out that the tree fruit sector pumps about $200 million a year into the valley’s economy.

That not only means farm labourers and people in the packinghouses earning salaries, but orchardists and their families purchasing groceries, vehicles and the electronic devices we’re all addicted to. They also go out to restaurants and the theatre and donate to charities.

While all of the challenges weigh heavy, Sardinha has a more important focus — increasing his farm’s production from 400 to 500 apple bins a year.

“I have some young blocks (of trees) I want to see come into production,” he said.

“I have put a lot of effort into this orchard. When you have 11 acres, you know every tree personally.”

But there’s another reason that Sardinha keeps heading outdoors early, even in the chilly winter for a day of pruning.

“I want to prove to the naysayers that the industry isn’t done. There is still an opportunity to be a success,” he said.

“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.”

– Richard Rolke is a senior city reporter at The Morning Star.