We can’t dispose of our own crop in a democracy!
Okanagan Fruit Growers and the Challenges of a Single Desk Marketing System

          The 1958 Report of the Royal Commission on the Tree-Fruit Industry of British Columbia began with a sobering statement from an Okanagan grower:

Fundamentally, there is only one reason why we growers want a Royal Commission, and that is the indisputable fact that in the midst of a booming economy, we are not afraid to admit that we are going broke. 1

The 1940s had been the golden era of the fruit industry in British Columbia, when being one of the over 3,600 registered fruit growers meant enjoying a relative level of prosperity. This affluence, however, had been brought about by an industry that had operated through the depths of financial turmoil, had survived production crises, and that had ultimately prospered within a rigidly structured hierarchy. The central selling agency - the cornerstone of the British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association’s (BCFGA) broad based policy “to do everything to protect and further the interests of the growers in all matters directly connected with the production and marketing of their produce”2 - was, moreover, the key to the viability of the Okanagan. Only a generation earlier the industry had been struggling to survive, and the growers had turned to the alternative of government control over marketing in order to survive. It was believed that legislation would ensure fairer treatment, as a “single-desk” and “orderly marketing” would check unnecessary and cutthroat competition amongst local growers while directing the flow of produce to markets in quantities that would avoid unnecessary gluts. It must be kept in mind, however, that the single-desk was never an attempt to circumvent the law of supply and demand, to institute a monopoly, or to establish artificial price levels. Growers had always had to contend with supplies from other producing regions on the continent, and to do so with only a minimum of tariff protection. As well, the flawed settlement philosophy of the Valley, wherein many growers had been left on land of only marginal capacity, only compounded the situation of the Valley's growers. The single-desk offered, on the other hand, growers the possibility of uniting their economic power within institutional and corporate structures which would provide stability for the orchard unit and give them, as a whole, most of the benefits of the modern agricultural corporation.3

          By the end of the 1940s, the restrictions of the War (and post-War) economy had done much to bolster the single-desk system, as a lack of competition from imports created a false economy for Okanagan fruit within Canada. Unfortunately, as the decade came to a close the industry would be faced with a series of challenges in production and marketing that had not been seen since the growers’ strike of the early 1930s. The federal government's removal of restrictions on imports in 1949 occurred as currency restrictions still prevented sales to offshore markets, as freight rates to Eastern Canada nearly doubled, and as production increased by more than a million boxes over 1948.4 To compound the situation, the Valley experienced two significant freezes in quick succession in 1950 and 1955 that caused substantial damage to fruit trees. As growers saw their returns reduced, in some case by as much as fifty percent, there emerged a growing unrest within the Valley. In addition to the broader calls for reform that began to be voiced after 1953, there also operated a small dissident group of growers who had never come to terms with the illiberal restrictions of central selling. These individuals would attempt to exploit the wider current of dissatisfaction among Okanagan growers to push for a relaxation of central selling. The way in which the industry leadership responded to the challenges and allegations of these dissidents held the potential to determine the ultimate fate of the single-desk system, along with the future viability of the entire orchard landscape within the Okanagan Valley.

          The appointment of Earle Douglas MacPhee, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce at UBC, to head a provincial Royal Commission in December of 1956 had removed a tremendous amount of pressure from an industry leadership that had been under fire for the previous six months. The perceived inaction of the BCFGA Executive in the face of a mounting economic crisis, and its open disdain for a Royal Commission, had spurred the formation of a Ginger Group within the Penticton Local that October. These reformers wanted a comprehensive, industry-wide investigation, and set about to convince the 30 Locals that comprised the BCFGA to adopt their resolution during the delegate selection process that Fall. Their resolution stated that the plight of growers was such that the Executive must immediately request an inquiry. As Locals from all over the Valley endorsed the motion, the Ginger Group gained in stature as a representative force within the industry, albeit an unelected one. This made the 1957 Convention a highly anticipated affair, as there promised to be a clash between the reformers and the more conservative, incumbent Executive for control of the BCFGA. What the Ginger Group had misjudged, however, was the depth of their support amongst growers, as their calls for a Royal Commission was what had solidified their power base. When the provincial government consented to the demand for a Royal Commission, the Ginger Group, having attained its primary goal, had effectively run its course as an agent for change within the industry. Not wishing to inflict any major upheavals upon their own organization during an investigation, delegates at the Convention soundly rejected all resolutions aimed at ousting the current leadership. Though the Ginger Group would still be heard from on occasion over the next few years, they would never wield the influence they had had in encouraging the province to appoint a Royal Commission.

          Although the Ginger Group had been comprised of reformers who attempted to work within the existing industry framework, there also existed a small minority of growers who had never accepted the restrictions of central selling and the single-desk. In the early history of the fruit industry, they were ardent individualists who had practical experience marketing their produce and preferred to rely on their own initiative instead of any collective action. Since the implementation of B.C. Tree Fruits as the sole selling agent in 1939, however, the composition of this small, but vocal minority of growers had been changing. An influx of immigration during and after the War had brought people into the Valley who were unaware of the industry’s history, and who had a difficult time accepting the bounds of central selling within a democratic country such as Canada. While not all emigrants to the Valley were opposed to the system, those that were compromised a sizable enough group that in the years leading up to the Royal Commission they had been the targets of an unsuccessful organizing drive by a group known as the Farmers Union. It had come out during the Royal Commission that the Farmers Union had conducted its meetings in the Valley largely on the basis of language, appealing to the non-English segment, with the objective of rallying them into a group by themselves.5 One of their leading organizers within the Okanagan was an Oliver grower named Alfred Beich.

          As an individual, Beich is significant for two reasons in particular. The first is that he was the lead organizer of the dissidents during this period, so his views are of some consequence. The second is that it was his actions that prompted the Royal Commissioner to conduct a series of private hearings to determine what exactly the dissidents were trying to accomplish. To read the records of the Royal Commission on the Tree-Fruit Industry, one must wade through twenty-two boxes and literally hundreds of files at the Provincial Archives of British Columbia. The subject matter ranges from the mundane to the very useful, but the files dealing specifically with Beich are perhaps the most interesting. It is in these papers that one is presented with some very candid views from a significant cross-section of growers, and in which personalities come to play as great a role as competing philosophies concerning co-operative marketing. The transcripts of these meetings, at one time confidential, form the basis of this article and shed light on a period of great soul searching within the Okanagan fruit industry.

          As a grower, Beich had a long history of agitation and involvement in the Oliver area, and the industry leadership knew that he had been illegally peddling fruit to the Coast. Two weeks after the 1958 Convention, the Oliver Local met to present its report of the proceedings to the membership, and this meeting was subsequently related to the Royal Commission in a private hearing. A relatively routine gathering, it was to be punctuated by what the Local’s President called a rather “amusing incident”.6 A letter written by Beich to the Local was read aloud wherein he indicated that he was resigning from the Local and that the BCFGA would no longer be representing him.7 This was, of course, almost impossible under the structure of the industry and the nature of the three-party contract, but Beich was making a principled stand. The response, according to Gordie Wight, an Oliver grower in attendance that night, was a loud cheer from the crowd upon word of the resignation.8 Beich’s maverick status within the BCFGA, and involvement with the Farmers Union had not won him many followers among those who supported the current marketing system.

          Recent events within the industry, however, had been bolstering the resolve of dissidents like Beich who were determined to test the strength of the BCFGA. A delay in the proceedings of the Royal Commission the previous year had been interpreted by the dissidents as a sign that there was truly something amiss with the marketing system, and that an opportunity to have the shackles of compulsory cooperation removed had arrived. These dissidents began a preliminary campaign of spreading falsehoods and rumours to aggravate discontent among growers. It was related to the Royal Commission, during the course of another private hearing, that the appointment of the Commissioner's assistant to the post of Provincial Horticulturalist, the appointment of the Manager of B.C. Tree Fruits to a separate Royal Commission on Education, and the resignation of an Executive in the BCFGA had all been interpreted as signs of a sinking ship. This type of conjecture on the part of the dissidents was a key to their efforts to mobilize support for their position, relying on circumstance and grower discontent rather than fact.

          The first direct challenge to the BCFGA and central selling came with word that the previously unheard of Canadian Fruit Growers Association had formed a Local in Salmon Arm. The fact that the CFGA first emerged in the north was not surprising, as that end of the Valley had been hit hard by the 1955 freeze. As A.G. DesBrisay testified in a private hearing: “the Salmon Arm Local had no tonnage, their packing costs were as high as $1.95 when a box of apples was selling for around $2.00 and, simply put, their position was impossible and they were lashing out”.9 News of this first CFGA Local received only sporadic coverage throughout the Valley. The Oliver Chronicle, whose readers where the most familiar with Beich, ran an article that week detailing the motivations for the creation of the organization. It was pointed out by the editorial board that if the CFGA sought to compete with the BCFGA as an equal, it was fighting an uphill battle because the BCFGA held a preferred position under the Natural Products Marketing Act.10 The reception that the CFGA received in the Kootenay’s, however, was altogether different. Growers in the Creston area had endured a particularly rough period since the single-desk had been introduced in 1939 as the new marketing system had come to be dominated by Okanagan growers. As a result, the pooling returns were based on the lower Okanagan costs of production, and Kootenay growers could not economically exist under the regime.11 By 1958 these growers had become a fertile group for dissent and outright rebellion on the single-desk. The vast majority of the members whose support Beich claimed to have would be found around the Creston area, as these growers' failure to attain a division of marketing on geographic lines from the Fruit Board was leading them to embrace the CFGA, even if this moved entailed a policy split with Okanagan growers.12

          In dealing with the Salmon Arm Local of the CFGA, the industry leadership in Kelowna called in the three to four members that comprised the group to discuss their position. In relating the meeting to Dean MacPhee, the President of the BCFGA, Arthur Garrish, conceded that he could sympathize with their position. Many had bought their orchards “after the War when things were rosy at Salmon Arm and elsewhere”.13 In the fallout from the 1949-50 freeze, many of these people had found it heavy going, and this was the inevitable reaction.14 Despite the deceptively reformist approach of Beich’s platform with the CFGA — control from the grassroots, elections on a regional basis by mail ballot, and open accounts of tree fruit industry officials15 — it was made clear to the rouge Local that the ultimate purpose of their new Association was the removal of the single-desk system. In short order, the Salmon Arm group announced that they had not realized what they were getting themselves into with the CFGA, and opted to fold after only two weeks in existence. Beich, in typical fashion, responded through the media that B.C. Tree Fruits had worked out some secret deal with the group. Nevertheless, his CFGA appeared to be on the verge of collapse. The only person that still seemed to be taking note was Dean MacPhee, who felt duty bound to meet with the CFGA in light of its claims to represent 300 growers.
         Of great concern to MacPhee, however, was the possibility that his investigation might lend undue credibility to the CFGA. He was unsure if they were only

a little dissident group who are always going to arise in any situation and to whom one does not give an opportunity for public appearance.16

If they were indeed a group that represented a significant percentage of the grower population, however, they were entitled to a public hearing.17 In an attempt to resolve this problem, the Dean met privately with the Executive of the BCFGA and leaders of the Penticton Ginger Group. Both the President of the BCFGA, Arthur Garrish, and the President of B.C. Tree Fruits, Gordie Wight, were Oliver growers who had had a long history of confrontation with Beich at the local level, and both men were completely dismissive of Beich and his abilities to organize a credible challenge to the BCFGA. When asked if he thought any responsible growers were joining the CFGA, Wight responded:

I think most of them rather laugh about it when you ask them what they are going to do … Of course in our area – most people know Beich so that to some extent eliminates his factor.18

To which Garrish commented:

I may treat these things too lightly because we’ve had to live with Beich so long that we’ve developed sort of a defence mechanism were you just take Beich as he comes.19

Both men were of the opinion that with the collapse of the Salmon Arm Local, the CFGA had been effectively broken. Wight further questioned Beich’s claims to have the support of 75 growers in the Oliver-Osoyoss area, believing the number to be closer to two.20 To the question of whether the Royal Commission should worry about making the CFGA a more credible organization than it might otherwise be through a public hearing, Garrish equated Beich’s current agitation with the CFGA to his activity in the Farmers Union:

I said to them then that Beich could kill the Farmers Union far more effectively than I ever could, and I proposed to leave it to him to do it. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the kiss of death for any organization.21

A.G. DesBrisay, a Governor on the Fruit Board and past President of the BCFG from the Penticton area, admitted that he was not as familiar with Beich as Garrish and Wight, but knew of him through reports to the Board that he had been bootlegging fruit to the Coast.22 Although DesBrisay admitted that he didn’t “understand the man’s type of mentality”23 , he disagreed with both Wight and Garrish’s assessment of the CFGA. While he did not feel a public hearing was warranted, he did recommend to the Dean that Beich be questioned in a private meeting as to exactly what it was he was doing. DesBraisay’s further added that Beich was

a man who wants to be elected to office and he can’t make his neighbours elect him so he is seeking another method of trying to get a position of power within the industry.24

DesBrisay was of the opinion that if Beich felt that the Commission was listening to his views, it was possible that a lot of wind would be taken out of the CFGA’s sails.

          The Penticton Ginger Group were the only ones who felt that the CFGA constituted a real threat to the industry — which was due in large part to the overlapping constituencies that both groups appealed to. Herb Corbishley, the de facto leader of the Penticton group, was especially concerned over Beich’s manipulation of the language division amongst growers. He felt that the CFGA was attempting to pick up where the Farmers Union had left off by claiming there was an organized clique of growers holding power over the BCFGA, while the “foreign element” was being marginalized.25 Of course, it had been the Ginger Group’s main argument that the Executive had become complacent and were not doing enough for growers. As Corbishley testified:

This may not be in line with a lot of growers’ thinkings, but there are a lot that have lost confidence in Mr. Garrish, mainly because of his overbearing attitude and open opposition to the growers requests … He’s a very capable Chairman, but where we differ is that he’s not down to the farmer’s level. He used to be but now he’s above it. He’s getting arrogant.26

He also pointed out that he believed the main appeal of the CFGA to so many growers was, again, internal industry problems. The United Co-op packinghouse in Penticton, for instance, had misread their crop and paid out too much to their growers. Both Corbishley and Garrish agreed in separate meetings with the Commissioner that this blunder was due to internal problems at the packinghouse, and, in talking with MacPhee, Garrish hypothesized the following:

I heard a very interesting comment from one of the packinghouse fraternity on that particular activity. It is true that they have a basis for what they did. Bill Darrough is a very cautious, conservative soul, and he felt that it was his duty to see that packinghouses protected their position, and like most of these conservative Scotsmen, he leaned over backwards to do it, and this particular packinghouse, which was unnamed in the early stages, apparently took full advantage of that item and passed it on. But one of their fraternity right here in Penticton discussing it with another packinghouse manager was at a loss to understand why they had done such a thing – deliberately as he put it – but came up with this solution. I think it is very intriguing. They had made such a mess of their Bartlett pear deal and were so far below their competitors that it was practically essential to throw up some sort of smoke screen. They had just closed their Bartlett pear pool and they were running about 25¢ a box behind their competitors. They had run very heavily into a local maturity situation and of course they couldn’t handle their pears properly and they took the rap in the pool, and from the standpoint of their own internal policy it was essential that they obscure that, so this provided the opportunity.27

To compensate, they announced that it was going to be a poor crop year in the hopes of getting their growers conditioned to either no returns, or even potential red ink.28 Since this forecast had come out so early in the season, it became the yardstick against which all other growers in the Valley began to determine what their returns for the year might be. The discontent this spawned was precisely what the Ginger Group feared Beich and his followers might tap into.

          Based on this advice, the Royal Commissioner ultimately decided to hold a private meeting with the CFGA in June to find out what they were advocating and telling growers. The intervening months had been anti-climactic, as Beich continued to hold meetings, mostly for the benefit of the press, in the Creston area where he would savage the BCFGA and make his case for authorized peddling. When MacPhee finally met with the dissidents, it would prove to be the only meeting between the two sides. Under questioning, Beich revealed that not only was the CFGA an unincorporated Association, whose very name was in doubt, but that they were operating without a Constitution or By-laws.29 The CFGA was turning out to be nothing more than a shell that Beich and other dissidents were using to push their political agenda. In all likelihood, if these individuals achieved the ends they sought, it was quite likely that the CFGA would cease to exist even in name. MacPhee, therefore, attempted to establish what exactly what the CFGA hoped to achieve, to which Beich replied that one day it would operate as an alternative to the BCFGA within existing industry structures. The dissidents simply envisioned a two-party political system whereby the two Associations would compete for control of the Fruit Board and B.C. Tree Fruits. The merits of this proposal where at best dubious, as central selling could never survive the different policy objectives of two separate, and opposing Associations. Once orderly marketing was dismantled to accommodate the CFGA’s desire to “sell to anyone that would buy”30, it could not be easily re-instituted again. There would be no turning back if the CFGA ever achieved any form of power within the industry, so MacPhee tried to determine where the CFGA stood on the issue of central selling. Of the half dozen growers representing the CFGA that day, only one claimed outright not to support the concept, as even Beich claimed that he supported it in theory. In light of this seeming contradiction, MacPhee asked if any of them had ever done any marketing of their own? Apart from admissions of illegal bootlegging to the Coast, not a single person testified that they had ever done any commercial marketing, and not one of them had been growing in the Valley before 1940. This was the new vanguard of growers opposed to central selling seated before the Commission that day; they were, as a group, unaware of the industry’s history, and were being guided by individual opportunism. They did not realize, or accept, that the prices they received from bootlegging bore a direct correlation with presence of the orderly marketing system, a system they did not understand. If the BCFGA had not been actively regulating the flow of produce to markets on the Coast, it is unlikely that bootlegging would have been as profitable as it was.

          The remainder of the hearing consisted of MacPhee querying the dissidents on how they proposed to dispose of the six million boxes of apples the Okanagan produced annually? To each question the Dean posed, the dissidents allowed themselves to be caught in an inconsistency with their platform. Their inability to comprehend the costs and challenges of erecting a marketing structure coloured the rest of the hearing. From offering discounts to wholesale purchasers to constructing branch warehouses, MacPhee challenged all of the dissident’s assumptions. By the end, the Dean made it clear to those assembled before him that he expected them to make it abundantly clear to growers exactly what it was they were proposing and the exact costs involved.

          When the final Report was presented to the provincial government that November, MacPhee came down strongly in favour of the industry leadership, and the Canadian Fruit Growers’ Association was finished. The Dean commented that what he saw in the fruit industry were aggressive and progressive organizations, with no evidence of wasting or extravagance.31 The BCFGA, which MacPhee believed had borne the brunt of the growers criticisms during the investigation, was not the undemocratic beast it had been portrayed as, and had done much to aid the work of the Commission.32 If there was a centralization of power occurring under Garrish it was not something that could be rectified through legislation, and there still remained the fact that growers had just re-elected him for the eighth time as President that January.33 In addition, if there were any major imbalances that had to be corrected with the utmost haste, the reluctance of the industry leadership to better publicize its actions on the behalf of growers was the most pressing. The only references the Dean made to the actions of dissidents were indirect: he identified the Creston area as a “special problem”, but suggested that if those growers were to withdraw from B.C. Tree Fruits, as Beich would have it, they would be committing economic suicide.34 He also encouraged the Executive to deal with rumours as soon as they started, be at it at the Local level, in the press, or at the packinghouse.

          In the end, the Canadian Fruit Growers’ Association would appear to be nothing more than a footnote within the broader history of the Okanagan fruit industry; an organization hardly worthy of mention other than as a minor irritant during a period of economic volatility in the lives of many growers. In light of later events, however, the CFGA’s importance can be found in its role of a cautionary tale for the Okanagan fruit industry. As the BCFGA entered a new decade, it would face renewed challenges from urbanization, and the fruit industry would endure a repetition of the events that defined the grower unrest of the 1950s. A significant freeze occurred in 1964-65 to be followed in quick succession by another freeze in 1969 and as the economic plight of growers again deteriorated, demands for some form of investigation began to be raised. Seeking to exploit the discontent, dissidents and rebels again appeared on the scene, this time under the name of organizations such as the United Fruit Growers of British Columbia. And, once again, the province would commission an economic study to evaluate the efficiency of the fruit industry in 1973. In what was becoming a well-established precedent, the Hudson Report reaffirmed that the single-desk and orderly marketing met the needs of Okanagan growers better than anything else that had been proposed. Unfortunately, where the Canadian Fruit Growers Association had failed in the 1950s, dissidents would achieve success in 1973-74, as the provincial government abandoned its responsibilities to the fruit industry in enforcing the principles of the system of central selling. The CFGA demonstrated how a small minority of growers could wield influence far in excess of their numbers. Their accomplishments are reflected, in part, by the declining prospects of the fruit industry today — where there had once been 3,600 growers registered with the BCFGA, today there are no more than 800 at best.


Partial Footnotes:

1. British Columbia. Department 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.
2. Arthur Garrish, quoted in MacPhee, Ibid.
3. MacPherson, Ian., "Creating Stability Amid Degrees of Marginality: Divisions in the Struggle for Orderly Marketing in British Columbia 1900-1940." Canadian Papers in Rural History. Volume (VII), Gananoque, Langdale Press, 1990.
4. Dendy, David., A Fruitful Century: The British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association 1889-1989. Kelowna: BCFGA, 1989.
5. Arthur Garrish to Dean MacPhee, Proceedings of the Royal Commission Investigating the Tree-Fruit Industry of British Columbia, March 13, 1958, Box 5, File #15. Provincial Archives of British Columbia.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Gordie Wight to Dean MacPhee, Proceedings of the Royal Commission Investigating the Tree-Fruit Industry of British Columbia, March 13, 1958. Box 5, File #16. Provncial Archives of British Columbia.
9. Gordon DesBrisay to Dean MacPhee, Proceedings of the Royal Commission Investigating the Tree-Fruit Industry of British Columbia,
10. March 13, 1958, Box 5, File #17.
11. Oliver Chronicle, February 27, 1958.
12. Joan Lang, "A History of the Fruit Growing Industry in the West Kootenay District of British Columbia 1905-1950", Unpublished M.A.
Thesis, University of Victoria, September 1996.
13. Ibid.
14. Oliver Chronicle, February 27, 1958. Editorial Wally Smith.
15. Garrish to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
16. Garrish to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
17. Oliver Chronicle, March 6, 1958.
18. MacPhee to DesBrisay, March 13, 1958.
19. MacPhee to DesBrisay, March 13, 1958.
20. Wight to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
21. Garrish to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
22. Wight to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
23. Garrish to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
24. DesBrisay to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
25. DesBrisay to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
26. DesBrisay to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
27. Herb Corbishley to Dean MacPhee. Proceedings of the Royal Commission Investigating the Tree-Fruit Industry of British Columbia, Feb 27, 1958. Box 5, File #13. Provncial Archives of British Columbia.
28. Corbishely to MacPhee, Feb 27, 1958.
29. Garrish to MacPhee, March 13, 1958.
30. A.C. Carter, at a meeting with MacPhee and Garrish, March 13, 1958.
31. Canadian Fruit Growers' Association, Proceedings of the Royal Commission Investigating the Tree-Fruit Industry of British Columbia, June, 1958. Box #6, File #6. Provincial Archives of British Columbia.
32. CFGA, June 1958.
33. MacPhee.
34. Ibid.


© Copyright Christopher John Garrish. All rights reserved.