The economic fallout from a summer hailstorm that virtually destroyed the Okanagan area’s apple crop has reached packing houses.
Only about 70 people are working at the city’s biggest fruit processing plant, compared with the 140 employees normally needed in September to sort and ship the fruit.
“We’re not running the second shift that we usually would,” Richard King, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Packers Cooperative, said Tuesday.
With volumes of marketable fruit down, packing house employees are being called in on a seniority basis.
Managers at the region’s second-biggest packing house expect they may get only half as many apples this fall.
“With less fruit to grade, there’s no doubt it’s going to mean less work for our employees,” said Gary Schiek of the Okanagan North Growers Cooperative in Winfield.
Unionized packing house jobs pay $14 to $17 an hour, with most workers typically employed for about six months.
“A lot of our members aren’t going to get the hours they were counting on,” said Rob Nairne, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 2000.
The July 21 hailstorm destroyed an estimated three-quarters of the apple crop in the Kelowna area.
The fruit can’t just be left to rot, however, so growers have begun harvesting the early-ripening McIntosh apples.
While jobs have been lost in packing houses, there’s something of a labor shortage in the orchards. Growers and employment counselors say there are too few pickers to go around.
Many pickers who work their way through Okanagan orchards are bypassing Kelowna because they’ve heard about the hail damage, orchardists say.
Crop insurance payments to growers are expected to top $10 million, but the B.C. Fruit Growers Association has called for extra financial help from the government.
Association President Russell Husch said crop insurance typically covers only about a third of a grower’s losses.
But the government official who oversees the crop insurance program in the Okanagan said the group’s estimates of actual losses are premature because market prices for different apple varieties aren’t known yet.