The Gulf Islands are dotted with old apple orchards, marking homestead sites where the homes are often long gone. But the trees are there, and many of them have huge apples known as the King apples. The Gulf Island farms were the major growers of apples at one time, shipping apples to Vancouver and Victoria via boat. This was before the Okanagan took the title. According to “A Gulf Islands Patchwork”, published by the Gulf Islands Branch of the BC Historical Association, Mayne Island was the first place in BC to grow apples. As the story goes, a Captain Simpson from England was to do survey work on the Pacific Coast. At a party in England before his voyage, a lady slipped some apple pips into his waistcoat pocket and told him to plant them once he arrived at his destination. Captain Simpson remembered the request once he arrived on Mayne Island and was invited to a formal dinner. He put on the same waistcoat, put his hand into his pocket, and found the pips. He planted them on the spot, where they produced apple trees.
Today many of the orchards in the Gulf Islands are enjoyed by deer and sheep, and are in need of some pruning and care. There are always people who will offer to pick your apples for their own use, but scarce few who will do it in exchange for help with the pruning on those cold days in February. It takes time and work to maintain an orchard, especially the older orchards.
Prices to producers have dropped below the cost of production in many cases in Canada. At one time, Canadian apples were exported and in high demand for their quality. Now, there is a worldwide glut of apples as China is now the main producer and exporter of apples. The US, with some export markets dried up now push their exports into Canada. Washington produces 60 percent of the apples in the US, and BC produces 30 percent of Canadian apples. In recent years there have been efforts to increase the value of Canadian apples through replant programs that take out the older trees and replace them with higher density plantings that will produce higher quality fruit and are easier to harvest.
|Wilf Mennell telling the story of the Ambrosia apple to a group of international farm writers visiting BC|
To aid in the development of new varieties that can give producers a market edge and also fairly compensate them for their work, the government enacted the Plant Breeders Rights Act in 1987 and one of the first apples to receive this protection was the Ambrosia apple. The Ambrosia originated from a single chance seedling in the twelve acre organic orchard of Wilf and Sally Mennell in Cawston, organic capital of BC. Unlike the intensive breeding and screening of potential candidates in a normal plant breeding program, the Ambrosia apple was a product of neglect and sloppiness, with a dash of observation and lots of determination and luck (not unlike many scientific discoveries). The seedling had grown amongst a replanted orchard of Jonagolds where some varieties of Delicious apples and plums had been previously, but was not noticed until some of the pickers started selectively choosing the apples from one tree in the Mennell’s orchard for their own consumption. They must have been really good and unique for apple pickers to strip the tree clean every time it was full of fruit. The Mennell’s found out about the pickers’ favourite apple, and sampled some themselves in 1989. The hard work for the Mennell’s was in working with the newly formed Plant Improvement Corporation of the Okanagan in 1993 to evaluate the new apple, plant test orchards, and file under the new Plant Breeders Rights in Canada, and a US patent as well. Royalties are paid on each Ambrosia tree sold, which has been a very popular apple worldwide.
The increased interest in unique and special apples of high quality has created a resurgence in the growing of apples for niche markets. One such passionate grower is on Salt Spring Island. Harry Burton not only grows many types of apples organically, he also celebrates them each fall with the community in a special Apple Festival. The Apple Festival contributes to not only farm incomes, but the economy of the island as a whole. The Apple Festival this year had a seminar by long-time Seattle apple expert Dr. Bob Norton, a tour of sixteen farms and many, many participants who came to learn about, taste, and celebrate the apple. The ripening of this year’s crop was delayed all over the province due to the weather, and Harry has a wide variety of apples ready now and available for sale by the box, all organic. Not only would that be a fine way to stock up for the winter, but they would make unique gifts as well.