Mar 27, 2014Davison Orchards secures unique niche
An abundance of family farm tradition has been established in a non-traditional setting on the slopes along the Okanagan Valley in Vernon, B.C., Canada.
Davison Orchards Country Village is in “kind of a funny place to have a direct marketing operation,” said Tom Davison, who returned to the farm from Olds Agriculture College in the 1980s and now operates the endeavor with his wife, Tamra, and his parents, Bob and Dora.
“We’re on a dead-end road, away from the highway in an area that doesn’t have a lot of population,” Tom told an International Fruit Tree Association tour in February. “The key to this is to marry well. My wife can’t grow a houseplant, but she understands marketing and atmosphere and what it takes to get people here. We have about 250,000 visitors in a six-month season here at the farm.”
According to a historical paper produced by Tom and Tamra’s daughter, Laura Shaw, the family lineage involved in the farm’s evolution runs deep. It started in 1933 with 34 acres of apples.
In 1927, Tom’s grandparents, Tom and May, left their home in England and made the journey to western Canada. It was while the elder Tom worked in Westbank, B.C., that he began to develop a relationship with British Columbia Fruit Shippers, an area packinghouse.
B.C. Fruit Shippers provided financing to purchase the orchard in Vernon, which later became Davison Orchards. In 1929, Tom’s brother Edwin, also known as Ted, and his wife Phyllis decided they too would join the farming effort.
In 1953, at the age of 21, Bob married Dora McKenzie. He then took the reins of the orchard. The agricultural market began to pick up in the late 1950s, and production of apples continued throughout the ’60s. Bob and Dora had four children: Joyce, Linda, Tom and Sharon; and two foster children, Nathan and Erica. The children all grew up on the farm. All the apples grown on the orchard were sold to B.C. Fruit Shippers.
The younger Tom leased and farmed some orchards while he worked for the Vernon Fruit Union as an agricultural consultant. Tamra worked as an interior decorator. After a few years, Tom pursued the option of working on the family property with his father.
Tamra brought a new dynamic to the family and the orchard. She had an eye for displays and a natural talent for sales. The couple had seen several successful orchards that sold directly to the consumer and decided to give it a try.
Selling 100 percent direct to customers enabled the farm to gain more return for the apples it would sell to the packinghouse at a much lower price.
In the spring of 1985, Tom and Tamra joined the orchard as partners with Bob and Dora; all the profits and costs would be split evenly between the two families. All four of Tom and Tamra’s children and two spouses currently work at the farm and help manage different areas.
The facility features a café in the original farmhouse, using its own produce to market value-added products. The farm hosts tours and holds numerous special events during the course of the year. The retail operation is open May 1 to Oct. 31.
Optimal location for harvest
“This is a fairly warm area for this far north in the Okanagan,” Tom said. “We’re right at the north end of Okanagan Lake – essentially the end of the fruit-growing area. When you go north from here, you lose any moderating influence from the lake, so the risk of winter temperatures skyrockets. There’s very little tree fruit or vegetable production north of here, even a few kilometers.”
“The slope we’re on is south-facing and very warm,” he said. “We’re able to grow a lot of crops here because of the location. It’s very much a microclimate, being a little spot that’s hotter and drier than the rest of the Okanagan, and that impacts what we can grow.”
“It’s a family operation with three generations working together,” Tom said. “My dad is the second generation to be on the farm; my kids are the fourth. It’s fun to work together. It’s an important part of our family business. To be able to have my dad and grandson out in the orchard together is a real privilege and we understand that, and we appreciate it very much. We don’t take it for granted.”
Tom said the key to the smooth operation of the farm is “open family discussions. The family is all working in different areas. They overlap, of course, but it’s important we’re not stepping on each other’s toes excessively. It’s important everybody knows what their responsibility is, and that’s why it works so well.”
He acknowledged the farm cropping system is “diversified to the point of insanity. We grow about 100 acres of crop; close to half of it is vegetables. With our tomato planting, we grow transplants ourselves and bring them out in the spring on black plastic. Everything’s trickle irrigated.
“We have a wide range of different crops, including tomatoes, watermelons, peppers and squash. All of it contributes to us having as big of an array of crops available for sale as we can. We do buy some crops and bring them in to sell, but we want to grow as much as we possibly can ourselves.
“Trying to do it all ourselves creates its own management nightmares,” Tom said. “When you have a half an acre of this and an acre and a half of that, it drives you nuts. But when you sit down after the season’s over and you go through the numbers, you say, ‘those were really a pain in the neck, but actually, they were a big contributor on that small piece of land.’”
Production of fruit includes peaches, pears and the main crop of apples – as many as 20 varieties, “and that in itself is a bit of a challenge.”
“We’re on hillsides with basic plantings of 12-by-4, 12-by-5, spindle-type of tree. We try to keep them very short because of the hillsides and because we do some u-picks, so we do a lot of things from the ground. It doesn’t give us the highest production, but part of it is ease of management in light of everything else we’re trying to keep up with, and it works.
“Part of what we’re known for on the marketing side is, when you come out in the fall, there will be a lot of different varieties to choose from,” he said.
Tom and Tamra’s son-in-law, Kevin Shaw, explained the market’s specialty foods department, which includes bakery products made from scratch, with 35 to 40 different products from which to choose.
“We’re first and foremost farmers and we control the quality of what we’re using because we grow it ourselves,” Shaw said.
He said the farm’s produce is used to prepare and sell soups, salsas, preserves and other items. The apple juice operation is in full production mode in September and October, producing 52,000 liters of juice in about six weeks.
Spreading the word
Most of the farm’s success is driven by its marketing efforts, directed by Tamra Davison.
“My main mandate is to educate and connect with our customers, to bring more visitors to our farm, entice them to stay longer and to create a great farm experience so they go home with great memories and they tell their friends,” she said. “We’re so diversified. It’s about family, it’s about food, it’s about fun. We accomplish a lot of what we do through word of mouth.”
She said families represent the farm’s “target market. They eat a lot, they’re looking for fun things to do and they bring their grandparents – that’s a good thing.”
Davison Orchards employs about 80 staff in season, with 14 year-round workers.
“Our goal is to educate customers on what we grow, how it’s grown and teach them to preserve food so they can eat it year round,” she said. “Education is an ongoing process. We want customers to come to us with their questions about the food we grow. We as farmers really need to gain their trust and loyalty so we can stay in business for the years to come.”
Farm tours are offered for $6 for adults, $4 for children; they run every hour in the summer months and on weekends in spring and fall.
“We offer canning demos and daily tastings, with a full-time sampler on staff – two in fall – one on specialty foods, one on apples. We put together brochures, product information – the more we can teach our customers, the more we can get them coming back and appreciating what all goes into food production. Food is the most important aspect of our farm. Two-thirds of the income that we have comes from the food we grow or from the specialty products we make.”
Other attractions include a gift shop, antique equipment display, pantry, farm animals and a farm-themed play area for children that costs adults $4 and is free for children.
Visitors cherish their encounters with Bob and Dora Davison, the elder generation still actively involved in the farm’s daily activities.
“It really means a lot to me to see the people who come through here, and to see the impact it has on them,” Bob said. “It makes it all worthwhile.”