In the South Okanagan, agriculture has always been key to settlement. The first Europeans who settled here on a long-term basis were ranchers who raised hundreds of head of cattle on their vast land holdings. These gradually gave way to orchardists, who came from all over the world to grow fruit in the warm climate of the Okanagan. Fruit trees spread across the land, and each town was home to several packing houses to prepare crops for sale.
Yet as prosperous as fruit growing is in the South Okanagan, it also comes with immense challenges, and at no time was this more true than at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, when fruit growing was first beginning in the valley. Winter temperatures froze the region, codling moths destroyed crops during an epidemic in 1925, irrigation systems were difficult to build and maintain, and both equipment and knowledge was minimal.1
Advancements in agronomy made at the Dominion Experimental Farm would be required to jumpstart the Okanagan agricultural powerhouse.
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Many of the settlers moving to the region had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Land developers targeted prairie communities with their sales, painting a picture of fruit growing as easy and profitable. As one early pioneer said:
"I came to the Okanagan Valley with the idea, common to many travelers from the Prairies, that growing fruit-bearing trees is easy. You plant the tree, wait until the crop is ready, then harvest the perfect, abundant fruit. As I became involved in orcharding, I realized that nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, it is an extremely complicated endeavor and its complexity increases with time."2
In response to all of these difficulties, the federal government created an experimental research farm in Summerland in 1914. The Summerland Research Station, then called the Dominion Experimental Farm, was put under the management of a successful farmer in the area, R.H. Helmer, who became the farm's superintendent. The goal of the farm was to provide scientific knowledge to the region's struggling farmers and find solutions to problems such as disease, pests, and the difficulties of fruit processing.
In the following years, the new farm slowly established itself. The land was cleared and an irrigation system was built to water the crops. In the first year, the main crop was beans, though other crops such as grass, hay, and potatoes were also planted. Later, this list would expand, and the focus would be placed on fruit growing.
Yet the experimental farm faced all of the challenges of other farms in the area, and the initial years of its operations were fraught with difficulties. During the late 1910s, the farm struggled with water shortages, as their water would be cut off without notice whenever the water was needed by an orchard in the area instead. Irrigation methods gradually improved during the 1920s with installations of diesel water pumps, yet as one historian says of those early years, "except for keeping the orchards alive, little was accomplished horticulturally."3
Eventually, however, more progress began to be made. In 1921, the Laboratory of Plant Pathology was established in response to an outbreak of fire blight, and in 1929, the Department of Food Processing was opened to deal with issues concerning shipping and storing fruit. In fact, the process of creating commercial fruit leathers, which are now popular across North America, was developed through this department.4
In addition to this research, the farm continued to plant a wide variety of crops in order to figure out which could be successfully grown in the Okanagan, including crops such as hemp and tobacco. Experiments were run to determine the usefulness of various pesticides and fertilizers, the effect of different soil types, and the importance of crop rotation. Research was also conducted into pollination and beekeeping, among other things, and the farm kept and studied livestock such as cattle, chicken and sheep. As early as 1928, the research facility was studying grape varieties to see which would grow best in the area, though the vineyard industry did not take off in the Okanagan until decades later.
Today, the Summerland Research Station is still devoted to studying agriculture in the region, though its focus has narrowed to the fruit and grape crops now grown widely in the South Okanagan. The 320-hectare site includes 90 hectares planted with fruit trees and grape vines, along with greenhouses, an isolated "virus orchard", and food research laboratories. Current research focuses on studying the agriculture industry's capacity to resist climate change.
1. Webber, Jean. A Rich and Fruitful Land: The History of the Valleys of the Okanagan, Similkameen and Shuswap. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, 1999, pp 169.
2. Fleming, W. W. Summerland Research Station: 1914-1985. Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, 1986, pp 8.
3. Fleming. W. W. 16.
4. "Summerland: A Brief History." Summerland Museum. URL: https://www.summerlandmuseum.org/summerland-a-brief-history