Picky market prompts changes from Creston Valley cherry farmers

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Gary and Susan Snow

Gary and Susan Snow

Blame it on the market, a fussy mass of consumers around the world that demands perfect, flaw-free fruit, refusing to give anything less so much as a second look.

That change, as much as anything, pushed Susan and Gary Snow into deciding they had to do more than grow late harvest cherries and export them around the world, not knowing how much they would get paid until months later.

“We used to have maybe a three per cent cull rate,” Susan says. “Now that number can grow to 20 to 40 per cent. And there’s nothing really wrong with the cherries; it’s just that the market won’t accept even the slightest flaw.”

(To make matters worse, buyers on the other side of the globe can reject the shipment and growers have no recourse.)

On a 25-acre farm, that’s a lot of cherries to dump, something no grower is very happy about.

“We just knew we needed something to use perfectly good cherries and to help us diversify,” Gary said. “When Creston got into the late season cherry business there was no competition in the world. Now there’s lots and it isn’t going to get any easier to compete.”

Even if the cherry crop could be pushed to ripen later in the season, there isn’t sufficient local labour to bring in the harvest. The bulk of pickers are young, many from Quebec, and they begin to head back to school or elsewhere as the end of August nears.

Adding juice making to the family farm operation seems like a natural progression, but it has been slow going.

The couple, who celebrate 25 years of marriage this year, spent a long-time researching and testing ways to make cherry juice that would taste as good as fruit fresh from the tree. Then there was the challenge of coming up with the investment capital to build facilities, buy equipment and market a product that has gained consumer acceptance.

Tabletree Enterprises Ltd. — “To the table from the tree” — got a boost when the Snows placed second in a provincial innovation competition that awarded them with a $100,000 grant to help get the business up and running.

From the outset, Tabletree black cherry juice got rave reviews from customers. It’s high in nutrients and has the antioxidants and anthocyanins that health-conscious consumers value. A proprietary process keeps not only the cherry flavour, but the bright red colour that makes the juice look as good as it tastes. With a pound of cherry juice in every 200 ml bottle (and triple that in the culinary sauce), the juice packs a nutritional punch.

That Susan is in the farming business is hardly a surprise. Her dad, Lou Truscott, has spent his life in fruit farming and beekeeping. In fact, the Truscott family has been farming in the Creston Valley for more than a century. Her uncle, Chuck and brother, Bill, have also made their mark in the business. Bill operates Truscott Farms, an enterprise that includes the popular Highway 3 fruit stand in Erickson. Lou founded that fruit stand and Chuck operated it for many years.

That Gary ended up a farmer was less predictable.

“I always said I didn’t want to marry an orchardist or a beekeeper,” Susan laughs.

Instead, she fell in love with a musician, a bass player who had been on the road with various bands since he was 17. She met her Kansas City-born love at a Creston Valley Blossom Festival and the pair lived in Kalispell, Mont., from 1987-1996.

Gary continued with his music career and Susan spent their first year together as a roadie.

“Six people and a basset hound in a big diesel bus,” is the way she describes it.

She moved into hospital administration after their son, Micah, was born.

In 1995, Gary got his first real taste of farm life when he came up to Creston to help his father-in-law with the cherry harvest.

“He came back so excited,” Susan recalls.

Soon, the possibility of returning to Canada was on the table. Susan was finding her work more stressful, Gary was tiring of the constant travel and Micah would have the chance to grow up among family.

Not long after they made the move, Susan found herself wondering, “How did I go from hospital administration to ‘Lutheran ladies member’, making breakfast for our men?”

“The lifestyle was certainly healthier,” Gary says, thinking about a musician friend who had partied himself to death at the age of 40.

But the downside of farming was something Susan was forced to once again come to terms with.

“The only regret I really have is that, with a kid, when you are a farmer you don’t have much summer fun. As a child, our one big summer vacation was driving to the prairies so Dad could check out a beekeeping operation.”

Gary’s childhood summer memories included fishing at the side of his father.

“Now I don’t look forward to summer because it comes before I’ve finished my spring work,” he laughs.

Susan says that getting into the juice business has stretched the busy summers into fall and winter.

“Before we starting making juice in 2009, at least we had some time to relax after harvest. Now our falls are busy with making juice and our winters are filled up with marketing and making business plans and getting ready for next year.”

Each year, the Snows are asked to demonstrate their products at food shows and retail locations. Just a few weeks ago, they headed to Calgary to set up their booth at three different Sunterra markets in three days. They spend a lot of their time educating consumers about farming practices.

Since 2004, their farm has been certified by Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices). The annual certification process assigns a unique identity to each producer and ensures the producer records all relevant product and farming practices information. Global GAP standards are primarily designed to reassure consumers about how food is produced on the farm by minimizing detrimental environmental impacts of farming operations, reducing the use of chemical inputs and ensuring a responsible approach to worker health and safety.

“We know how to grow good fruit,” Gary says. “We are kind of the poster kids for the ‘save the family farm’ movement.”

Tabletree products, with no preservatives or artificial additives, are now available as far away as Toronto. In Creston, Real Food Café, Buffalo Trails Coffee House, A Break in Time Caffé and Kootenay Thai Restaurant all feature the products. Truscott Farms sells retail products and Tigz Designs includes the juices and culinary sauces in their gift baskets. For more information, go to www.tabletreejuice.com.