On a warm Saturday afternoon in early August, the arbor-shaded produce stand, filled with baskets of ripe fruit, is busy. The sunlight glittering on the surface of nearby Skaha Lake, where hillsides green with vineyards and orchards slope to the water's edge, is intense, but within the thick walls of the stand, it feels cool.
Neighbors and tourists stock up on the last cherries and the first apples of the season. Owners Dave and Arlene Sloan chat with the regulars as Dave blends creamy raspberry smoothies.
August is the peak of the peach harvest season in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley - a long, narrow, glacier-carved basin filled with a string of gorgeous lakes that stretches more than 100 miles north from the U.S. border in central Washington. For more than a century, this valley has been Canada's fruit bowl, known throughout the western provinces for its fragrant, perfectly ripe peaches and sunny beaches.
But it's beginning to change. In the late 1980s, vintners started taking advantage of the Okanagan's warm climate, turning it into a fast-growing premium wine region. And now the combination of fresh local produce and award-winning wine is drawing top chefs to the area's increasingly sophisticated restaurants.
Today the Okanagan is the West's next big discovery. It's time to head north.
Fresh from the tree
"Our stand has become a meeting spot," Arlene Sloan says when the crush of customers dies down. The reason for its popularity, even more than the setting of stony gray hills, green orchards, and sapphire lakes, is the enthusiasm of the Sloans, who opened the stand at their Matheson Creek Farm three years ago. "We wanted others to enjoy our farm," Arlene says. "We love it." So do the couple's three children. "We're hoping one of our kids will be the fourth generation farming here," she says.
To make that happen, the Sloans and growers like them have been forced to think creatively. Orchards haven't vanished in the face of vineyards here as they have in some U.S. wine regions - Arlene Sloan says it's still a 6-to-1 ratio of orchards to vineyards - but the business is changing. The Sloans use innovative techniques to grow the trees closer together and produce higher yields. New fruit varieties, such as Sunrise apples, were developed at the local agricultural research station. Still, large-scale commercial production doesn't pay like it used to.
Andrea McFadden's family has been growing apples near Kelowna since 1908, but she found that she could no longer make a living growing them commercially. Nowadays she grows more than 60 varieties of lavender for culinary and other purposes at her Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm.
Drive the length of the Okanagan - from the forests of pine and fir in the north, through the more developed suburbs around Kelowna, and into the drier, rolling hills that fade to desert near Osoyoos - and you're never far from orchards and vineyards. Along the way, you'll meet other families balancing their fruit-growing heritage with the need to diversify. At the No. 1 Fruit Stand in Kaleden, Barb Schwabe sells homemade pies and pickled asparagus along with family-grown fruit; even her 7-year-old daughter, Tayler, pitches in. At Robert's Fruit Market & Orchard in Summerland, Barbara Robert and her family make preserves and baked goods to supplement their fruit sales.
While orchards are still the backbone of the Okanagan, the growers' willingness to diversify is one of the driving forces behind change here. That and, of course, the new vineyards.
Fruit stands to visit
In August you'll find an abundance of peaches and other stone fruit, early apples, and vegetables in the Okanagan Valley. Some of the best stands aren't on the main roads; call ahead for directions and to confirm hours - open daily unless noted.
Kaleden: No. 1 Fruit Stand. Copious fresh fruit, vegetables, and jams at a family-run stand. 434 Hwy. 97; 250/497-8686.
Okanagan Falls: Matheson Creek Farm. Apples, cherries, and smoothies. Eastside Rd. 5 miles south of Penticton; 250/497-8989.
Penticton Farmers' Market. Gleaming apples, Red Haven peaches, and more. 8:30-noon Sat. Next to Gyro Park (100 block of Main St.); 250/ 770-3276.
Penticton: Spiller's Corner Fruit Stand. Quaint, historic stand. 475 Upper Bench Rd.; 250/490-4162.
Summerland: Robert's Fruit Market & Orchard. A variety of fruit, plus preserves (try the apricot) and butter tarts, a Canadian specialty. On Hwy. 97; 250/494-5541.