Below the Ditch
The Creation of an Orchard Landscape


          The geography of British Columbia, which historically relegated farming to a supplementary rather than primary component of the economic system, has severely restricted the development of extensive cultivation, checked the growth of a large rural population, and hindered the emergence of a broadly shared rural consciousness. British Columbia is a sea of mountains covering 250,000,000 acres, approximately 5% of which is arable.1

Robin Martin

          The story of how the Okanagan emerged as a fruit-growing district during the first decades of the twentieth century is one that, at first, seems implausible. Initially perceived as simply cattle territory, over a twenty-two year span between 1892 and 1914 the Valley would be re-made into an intensive agricultural area, quickly dwarfing the combined output of the Saanich Peninsula and Lower Fraser Valley in tree-fruit production. The rapidity of this conversion would seem to suggest that the land possessed some form of inherent natural advantage: that the Okanagan truly was destined to be the fruit-basket of Western Canada. This was a belief commonly propounded by local boosters in the hyperbole of their advertising material. Such an interpretation is misleading as it divorces events in the Okanagan from trends re-shaping similar areas across the West Coast of North America at the close of the nineteenth century. After all, it had been similar endeavors in Washington State and Oregon that had provided the inspiration to import comparable models of agricultural production and settlement to British Columbia's Interior. The success of these tightly delineated geographic regions in the Pacific Northwest and California in producing specialized fruit crops even served as the basis for a specific theory of land utilization.2 Within this new order proscribed by land utilization theory, only those regions that could produce the most commercially attractive products, at the greatest cost efficiency were destined to succeed. What is interesting is that the advantages and disadvantages of geographic location should have forestalled a similar transition towards an intensive, small-scale orchard landscape in the Okanagan. Land utilization theory rested, after all, on an unshakable faith in the ability of commercial competition to properly order human uses of the landscape. In attempting to establish areas such as Vernon or Kelowna, growers would face systemic delays in production due to their northerly latitude, and aggressive competition from an established fruit-growing district in Ontario seeking to service the new Prairie market. That fruit trees ever came to be planted in the Okanagan remains a testament to the efforts of local boosters, and their success in detaching the marketing of the orchard landscape from the dictates of the natural environment. Unfortunately, in so doing, boosters resorted to promoting an idealized caricature of the Valley; one that appealed to sentiment and resulted in a proliferation of uneconomical orchard units. It has been the subsequent attempt to bring stability to these orchards that has defined the history of the fruit industry over the past century.

          The significance of the Okanagan's local topography cannot be overstated, for it assumes a far greater role than that of a passively shifting foundation, responding adversely to the environmental degradation of "artificial nature."3 The landscape has always played an active role in limiting the structures and patterns of the human communities that have entered the Okanagan. In illustrating this point, it is important to understand how different the Valley is from its surroundings. The Okanagan's geographic neighbours are the Cascade Mountain Range to the southwest and the Monashee Mountains in the east. These ranges contain an upland rim that generally runs anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, with summits that range in the 7,000 to 8,000 foot level.4 By comparison, the Valley bottom rises from a low of only 1,000 feet above sea level in Osoyoos, to just over 1,200 feet at the Okanagan-Shuswap divide near Armstrong in the north.5 Even the Similkameen Valley, which joins the Okanagan in the southwest, is only 1,700 to 2,200 feet above sea level.6 The practical effect of this differentiation in elevation is the creation within the Valley of a unique climactic phenomenon known as the rain-shadow: bringing hot, dry weather in the summer, and wet, mild conditions in the winter.7 So great, in fact, is the contrast in weather patterns between the peaks and valley bottoms that locals have been known to colourfully refer to the rain-shadow as a "marauder."8 Under these conditions, the naturally occurring vegetation of the Okanagan, running almost the whole length of the Valley from Osoyoos to Oyama, is dominated by a ground cover of perennial grasses.9 In this environment, stands of trees generally tend to be more abundant at the higher elevations: indicating the extent to which fruit (or any) trees would be ill suited to the Valley bottom.10 The natural north-south orientation of the Valley also facilitated the movement of cold polar air masses down into the Interior.11 The impact of the resulting frosts increased with every extension of the orchard landscape over the years.

          Life in the Okanagan prior to European contact was very much one of accommodation to site, where modes of production, while always insecure, required few changes to the environment. Reflecting this insecurity, community life in the Valley was multi-faceted in comparison with the single-staple resource economies of Coastal fishing tribes.12 The harvesting of naturally occurring foodstuffs was a seasonal activity that usually required collective action. Initial European settlement in the Okanagan around the 1840s differed little from these subsistence modes of production practiced by natives. It would take the expansion of the American mining frontier into the Pacific Northwest in the late 1850s and early 1860s before the potential of the Valley would be transformed as ranchers came seeking profit from the bunchgrass.13 Ranching took root because it was a relatively simple enterprise: no large expenditures were required to establish oneself, returns could be realized in a short period, and the large tracts of land needed for success could be had cheaply in the Okanagan. Yet, with all these seemingly natural advantages, the ranchers' footprint extended far beyond the surveyed boundaries of the ranch. Survival depended upon maximum use of the land base, due to the delicate nature of the bunchgrass, the needs of the cattle, and the aridity of the climate. Estates were to be left unfenced, and cattle were allowed to roam far and wide in search of sustenance. Accordingly, an expansion of the herds that accompanied the arrival of a transcontinental railroad in the 1870s was done without an industrial re-ordering of the landscape. Deteriorating bunchgrass resources and geographic isolation ensured that ranchers' use of the landscape remained one of accommodation; employing a coping strategy that shunned pure breeds in favour of "scrubs."14 The logic behind the decision is clear: instead of attempting to impose an industrial model of ranching it was deemed more feasible to simply experiment with different breeds of animal. While doing little to alleviate the pressure on bunchgrasses, real numbers did not diminish significantly, signaling that the strategy was generally compatible with environmental limitations.

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia (Drainage Basin)
Map #1 - Okanagan Valley, British Columbia (Drainage Basin)15

          A 1958 Royal Commission on the Tree-Fruit Industry was to raise a very important point in discussions regarding the scope of its mandate, and the nature of the inquiry it would conduct. Commissioner Dean MacPhee asked those who would be involved to ponder whether the causal factors in the rise of the Okanagan had been natural and intrinsic, or artificial and of an uncertain duration.16 The implication was clear: MacPhee wanted to determine if the development of a large-scale, intensive fruit-growing district had been an ideal utilization of the land base. He recognized that some of the systemic problems that had begun to plague the industry in the 1950s could be traced directly back to the natural limitations of the landscape. When contrasted with the long history of accommodation practiced by native groups, and the more recent experiences of the ranchers, it becomes easy to see where the fruit industry's problems originated. Fruit growing was to be the bold attempt to supersede the limitations of the environment in a way that other uses of the land had never intended.

"Cattle range, Thompson River in the distance, Kamloops"  circa 1900
"Cattle range, Thompson River in the distance, Kamloops"
circa 1900

          The establishment of an orchard community within the Valley was not going to be as easy as the transplanting of cattle had been a generation earlier. A fruit-tree took seven years, along with a substantial amount of effort and capital, to simply come into bearing, which, alone, did not guarantee the producer long-term success and profitability. In the absence of an established track record, much of the effort that would go into creation of an orchard landscape would be devoted to the promotion of an ideal that would entice settlers. As success was determined by a developer's return on investment, land-use decisions became detached from the realities of the natural environment, leaving many people on orchards that had been over-subdivided or erected on land unsuitable for tree fruits. Following the completion of a railroad into the Valley in 1892, what had been grazing pastures for cattle since Europeans had first settled the valley was transformed, via the boosters' promotional pitch, into a Garden of Eden: a place where one could pursue the idyllic life of the fruit grower.17 The imagery of the Garden of Eden concept effectively addressed all of the major concerns related to the redevelopment of the Okanagan as a fruit-producing region. The under-developed infrastructure inherited from the ranching industry was parlayed into a natural, rugged environment that played to the Victorian fascination with scenic beauty.18 Boosters also promoted the dry, warm climate as a beneficial tonic for an individual's health, while simultaneously downplaying the threat that the aridity posed to agriculture by hyping the unlimited moisture that new irrigation works would provide.19 As to the question of whether orcharding in the area was even feasible, boosters employed an disingenuous tactic. Using figures from other orcharding areas in the Pacific Northwest, they extrapolated hypothetical volumes, returns and profits on investment that could be made on par in the Okanagan.20 The inevitable questions of market share or competition from these regions was rarely touched upon, and if there ever was a mention, it was only the reassurance that future markets would be solid and expanding. A final lure to the concept of the Garden of Eden, and perhaps the most important in terms of future developments within the fruit industry, was that it offered those buying into it a particular lifestyle.21 The orchardist was commonly held to be Nature's Gentleman, and the opportunity to tend fruit and pursue a leisurely existence of sporting and social activities was a fundamental part of most people's decision to move to the valley. Viewed from this perspective, the rooting of a tree-fruit industry in the Okanagan occurred because of a constructed ideal, and not a practical adaptation of the land base.

Apple Orchard, Coldstream Ranch, circa 1900
Apple Orchard, Coldstream Ranch
circa 1900

          The early involvement in Okanagan real estate by some of the business and political elites of Canadian and British society further de-coupled the development of the orchard landscape from the constraints of the local environment. In the case of Lord Aberdeen,22 his participation instantly validated a belief held by many local promoters that the whole valley could be developed as a fruit-growing region. The apparent fact that a wealthy and experienced individual who could command the best advice available would plant two hundred acres to fruit trees spurred speculators to ready their own holdings for prospective investors.23 The involvement of Aberdeen and his ilk would prove, however, to be an anomaly in the overall history of development in the Valley. His holdings of four hundred eighty acres in Kelowna and thirteen thousand acres in Vernon still resembled the ranches of the cattle era, not the family farm of the orchard landscape. The Aberdeen model, if it can be called that, generally consisted of a mixed agricultural enterprise in which the hundreds of acres planted to fruit was only one component. Developers quickly discarded this model, preferring to divide their land into plots one fifth the size of Aberdeen's orchards, and designing these new units to stand alone as highly specialized producers. Many of the ranches in the north end of the Valley were to succumb to these land-use dynamics: the B.X. Ranch in Vernon was but one property subdivided into orchard lots running in size up to forty acres.24 The pressure to maximize returns from rural orchard land and not a growing urban hub is what marked the development of the Okanagan as different from other agricultural communities in the Canadian West.25 If a developer believed that greater fragmentation on a particular parcel of land offering an above-average vista, or located close to a town could command a higher price, the agricultural viability of that parcel would become a secondary concern. One of the greatest proponents of this point of view was Governor General Earl Grey, an individual who strongly believed in the social merits of a life growing fruit. Speaking before the Royal Agricultural Society he declared:

Fruit-growing in your Province has acquired the distinction of being a beautiful art, as well as a most profitable industry. After a maximum of five years I understand the settler may look forward with reasonable certainty to a net income of from $100 to $150 per acre, after all expenses of cultivation have been paid.26

This was a point of view that legitimated the creation of a significant number of plots in the one- to five-acre ranges. Unfortunately, what was unknown to many settlers was that the natural landscape they were moving into would not support these claims. As one grower would later declare in 1914, highlighting the suitability of planting the Valley to tree-fruits:

With regard to the subdivision and spoilation of the farms, I would suggest that one who is any way responsible for it be sentenced to five years on five acres without any means of support.27

In the search for profitability from the land, both growers and the provincial government would be forced to come to terms with the unregulated expansion that speculators had been allowed to conduct. Nevertheless, by 1914 the entire pattern of land-use in the north end of the Valley had essentially been changed, and the groundwork for a similar transition to fruit growing in the south end had been laid.28

"Home Farm," B.X. Ranch, Vernon
"Home Farm," B.X. Ranch, Vernon
circa 1900

          With the declaration of war across the British Empire in 1914, the end came to the land boom that had done so much to change the face of the North Okanagan. Immigration from Britain and elsewhere in Canada slowed, precipitating the collapse of some of the original fruit-growing communities, such as Whalachin. Conversely, within only a few years of Canada's entry into the Great War, the dynamics of mass mobilization, which had initially bled the countryside of young men, would spur the final extension of the orchard landscape to the international boundary. The area south of Penticton had continued to be served by a transportation system held over from the great ranch era well into the new century; a system that effectively retarded the spread of the land-use dynamics that had reshaped the north. The requirements of the Great War focused government attention on the potential of the Osoyoos Territory for soldier resettlement. Governments at all levels had begun to recognize as early as 1916 the need to establish returning soldiers peaceably into society, and the Okanagan, with its burgeoning orchard industry, seemed ideally suited. Unlike the experience of the north, units would be surveyed with viability as a productive unit the foremost concern and soldiers would receive preferential treatment on loans and financing to ensure success. What had not been foreseen was that such a rapid increase in the number of new orchard units threatened to destabilize those erected by the private land companies to the north.

          The establishment of ever more fruit growers was based on the political needs of a provincial government that believed the best means to settle and build British Columbia was through agricultural communities. Little consideration was to be given over whether the natural environment could sustain an expanded orchard landscape, and even less thought was devoted to the impact that this development would have on the operations of existing, and generally indebted fruit growers. Official government policy was following the same models employed by the private land development companies. Through use of creative taxation, twenty-two thousand acres were procured that would form the basis of the South Okanagan Lands Project.29 Throughout the 1920s the Lands Project would make available thirteen thousand acres of orchard land, which were to be parceled out, on very liberal terms, for sale in sizes of five, ten, and twenty acres.30 This government subsidization of the southern growers eventually resulted in the establishment of approximately seven hundred orchard units, with an average size of ten acres.31 Due to the growing specialization of orchards since the Aberdeen interlude thirty years earlier, the introduction of so many new growers in such a relatively short span severely tested the industry structures that had been implemented by the northern growers to deal with their own problems of viability. Even before the Lands Project, local markets in the Interior had long since been tapped, and new ones in Vancouver and the Prairies had to be sought to absorb the ever-increasing crop volumes. The other disadvantages of place, apart from the natural environment, were becoming increasingly obvious to Okanagan growers: the dislocation from major markets had not been bridged by the construction of a railroad. Instead of doing for the valley what the railway had done for California, it had created its own set of challenges by aiding in the emigration of ever more people, disrupting the balance of the north, and encouraging the proliferation of the orchard landscape in the south.

          The turbulent events that were to mark the end of the 1920s were a stark monument to the unsoundness of the foundation upon which the new orchard community had been erected. Both phases of settlement had been conducted with little regard for the natural landscape, as marginal land, small orchard units and vagaries of the local weather would all play havoc with grower attempts to make a living. What followed would be a long-term series of accommodations as growers struggled to find structures compatible with the environmental and market conditions they faced.




1. Martin Robin, The Rush for Spoils: The Company Province 1871-1933, Toronto: McLelland and Stewart Limited, 1972, p. 35.
2. Land utilization theory sought to address changes that had occurred to the rural landscape during the late nineteenth century. The advent of the industrial age, and the new technologies that came with it had begun to radically alter the relationship between farmers and their land in ways that were not fully understood. Innovations such as the transcontinental railway and telegraph were aiding in the transition of agricultural modes of production from mixed farming to more specialized, single-crop practices. Regions that had once been geographically isolated were coming to realize that they were now engaged in direct competition for dominance in a specific crop. This theory also held that only the region that could produce the most commercially attractive product, at the greatest cost efficiency, was destined to succeed within the new continental marketplace. The reduction of distance as a factor in marketing agricultural products allowed the productivity of apple growers in New York to be measured against the efficiency of growers in Washington State. In this American context, regional specialization, which included the growing dominance of the single-crop, was perceived as a progressive step in the evolution of agriculture. Oliver Baker, "The Increasing Importance of the Physical Conditions in Determining the Utilization of Land for Agricultural and Forest production in the United States," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Volume XI, 1921, pp. 39-46. See also, Steven Stoll, The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, pp. 16-31.
3. For a more in-depth discussion of these concepts it may be useful to read the writings of William Cronon. Cronon's use of the terms first nature - "original, pre-human nature" - and second nature - "the artificial nature that people erect atop first nature" are employed in his book Nature's Metropolis to help readers understand the dynamics that made the city of Chicago the greatest agent of ecological change in the nineteenth century American West. His narrative focuses upon human agency in detailing the re-ordering of "nature" into commodity groups, while the possibility of the reciprocal influence of landscape upon human activity only tends to be attributed to degraded natural environments. William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
4. British Columbia, Land Service, Department of Lands, Forests, and Water Resources, The Okanagan Bulletin Area - Bulletin Area No. 2 (revised), Victoria: Queen's Printer, 1974, p. 14.
5. Ibid., p. 12.
6. Ibid.
7. Steven Stoll, The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p. 3.
8. George W. Johnson, "Why the Okanagan is a Dry Belt," Okanagan Historical Society, 7th Report, 1937, p. 26.
9. Ibid., p. 20.
10. Ibid., p. 22.
11. Jeannette C. Boyer, Human Response to Frost Hazards in the Orchard Industry, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Waterloo: Department of Geography, University of Waterloo, 1977, p. 35.
12. Duane Thompson, "The Response of Okanagan Indians to European Settlement," BC Studies, No. 101, Spring 1994, pp. 97-98.
13. Ibid.
14. Scrub is an apparent slang used to refer to generic stock. This type of cattle was preferred for the simple reason that it was more likely to withstand the rigors of winter and still come in fat the following fall. Margaret Ormsby, "A Study of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia," Unpublished MA Thesis, University of British Columbia, April 1931, p. 55.
15. Canada, Okanagan Basin Implementation Board, Report on the Okanagan Implementation Agreement, Penticton: Ministry of Environment, 1982, p. (XV).
16. British Columbia, Ministry of Agriculture, Report of the Royal Commission on the Tree-Fruit Industry of British Columbia, Dean E.D. MacPhee (commissioner), Victoria: Queen's Printer, 1958, p. 14.
17. Paul Koroscil, "Gentleman Farmer in British Columbia's British Garden of Eden," British Columbia: Geographical Essays in Honour of A. MacPherson, Burnaby: Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University, 1991, p. 91.
18. Myrna Cobb and Dennis Duffy, "A picture of prosperity: The British Columbia Interior in Promotional Photography, 1890-1914," BC Studies, No. 52, Winter 1981-82, p. 142.
19. Koroscil, p. 91.
20. Vernon News, "Land Values in the Okanagan; Why Fruit Farms in British Columbia are a Paying Investment," Vernon, n.d., p. 2.
21. Koroscil refers to this as "Pleasure," an opportunity for leisure and social activities, p. 91.
22. Aberdeen was a distinguished member of the British upper class, and soon to be Governor General of Canada.
23. MacPhee, p. 22.
24. Hayward, p. 8.
25. One of the best studies that can be used to differentiate the varying objectives of Okanagan boosters from those operating on the Prairies is presented in Paul Voisey's study of Vulcan, Alberta. Using a local history to illustrate broader trends, Voisey shows how boosterism centered upon the urban aspirations of the local population. By promoting resource extraction, transportation links or industrial developments, the owners of rural property in the Vulcan area hoped to transform their holdings into a town, and ultimately a regional hub. Such a process was not reproducible in British Columbia as geography already precluded any urban center in the Okanagan from challenging the regional dominance of Kamloops. Speculative profit in the Okanagan, therefore, had to be derived from a rural land base that was not as extensive as on the Prairies, nor as inexpensive. For more, see Paul Voisey, Vulcan: The Making of a Prairie Community, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.
26. Earl Grey, quoted in British Columbia, Bureau of Provincial Information, Land and Agriculture in British Columbia, Victoria: King's Printer, 1912, p. 28.
27. Anonymous, quoted in British Columbia, Department of Agriculture. Full Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture. W.H., Hayward (commissioner), et al. Victoria: King's Printer, 1914, p. 10
28. MacPhee, p. 22.
29. The decision to re-introduce returned soldiers back into society was accompanied by a Land Settlement and Development Act in 1917 that allowed the provincial government to pressure speculators who had purchased large tracts of land without any intention to work them. A five per cent surtax was to be leveled after 1918 on all unimproved land found within a designated settlement area if it was not brought up to Board standards. If a land owner felt compliance could not be assured, there was always the option to sell out to the government at the appraised price. For more information, see Paul Koroscil, "Soldiers, Settlement and Development in British Columbia, 1915-1930," BC Studies, No. 54, Summer 1982, pp. 63-87.
30. British Columbia, Department of Lands, Government Irrigation Project: Fruit Growing Opportunities for the Man with Small Capital, Hon. T.D. Patullo, Minister of Lands, Victoria: King's Printer, n.d., p. 3.
31. S.D. Medland, "Economic Aspects of the Southern Okanagan Lands Project," Transactions of the Seventh British Columbia Natural Resources Conference, Victoria: Queen's Printer, 1954, p. 78.



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