Denise and Richard MacDonald’s property overlooks Giant’s Head Mountain and Paradise Flats.
They are one of about 25 Aurora Golden Gala growers in the Summerland area, and produce 200,000 pounds of apples a year made up of five varieties; Jonagold, Aurora Golden Gala, Gala, Spartan and Ambrosia.
The majority of their fruit is sold through the Okanagan Tree Fruit Company, one of the few large cooperatives left in the Okanagan Valley.
About 500 boxes of their highly-valued eating apples, Aurora Golden Galas, are sold farmgate style as they are too delicate to be handled in a large scale sorting facility.
…while you’re busy making other plans
In 1978 Richard graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture. He and a friend planned to travel by steamship to Australia where they were to spend the following year. Their motorbikes were crated and off they went to Light Travel in Penticton to buy their tickets.
When they told him where they were going, the travel agent said “Well, that’s going to cost you an arm and a leg.” He then stood up to go and get the tickets and Richard, upon seeing he was missing a leg, exclaimed “Oh, you’ve already been!”
The day after booking their passage, Richard was offered a job at the Summerland Research Centre. For him the dream of the trip to Australia ended abruptly while his friend headed off down-under.
A year later, at 24, Richard sold the bike and car in order to put a down payment on the orchard overlooking Paradise Flats.
Over time, he became a cherry breeding technician and also worked for five scientists in programs for growing the Sunrise, Creston, Aurora as well as the Sweetheart and Staccato cherries. The new Salish apple just released to the market in October was also one in which Richard was involved.
Agriculture: it’s in the blood
Denise had been raised in Burnaby and after finishing an agriculture course at BCIT, she moved to Summerland to immerse herself in agriculture. Her plan was to make her way up north eventually but after having landed a job at the Research Centre… well, the rest is history (or herstory) depending on which of them is telling it.
When asked about a comparison between the romance of their lives and that of a Peter Mayle Year in Provence lifestyle, Denise laughs ironically and says “yup, we’re livin’ the dream.” Last week alone, Denise made two trips to deliver apples 600 kilometres to the high-end retailers in the Lower Mainland.
The MacDonald’s email address begins with ei-e-io. Richard says things like “never plant a tree taller than your wife can reach” and Denise says “He used to call me his child-bride. Now he introduces me as his first wife.”
All chauvinism aside, theirs is a portrait of a happy well-adjusted partnership. There’s a lot of laughter in the orchard and they take pride in their work even though the hours are long and can be backbreaking especially on cold spring and late autumn nights when they’re pruning.
Mobile Juicing is coming on Monday to make apple juice out of their culled apples.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time we tried making apple cider?” asks Richard. “Denise got together a couple of friends at the neighbours place and it took them all day to pull 1000 litres of cider. I had been at cubs camp with our boy for the weekend – I was exhausted from the long drive home, when Denise called and said you better come and pick up the cider.”
“You know how the drive is kind of steep leading up to our house?” Richard asks rhetorically. “I had picked up the barrels of cider from the neighbours; they were loaded in the bin on the tractor. As I was heading up the hill, the front wheels jumped up about three feet off the ground and I almost fell off. I slammed the clutch down to try and control it, and then the tractor started bouncing – it went up and down and up and down and the next thing I knew, the barrels torpedoed down the driveway. There was cider gushing everywhere.”
“When the dust settled there were about 20 litres left. The juice had turned into kind of a fragrant mud, yup it was basically a mud slick and I was covered with juice, mud and grass. When I staggered into the house Denise’s jaw dropped. I said “We have about 20 litres left. How do you want to split it up?
I was in the doghouse over that one for quite a while.”
Bonus harvests and added value
Having an orchard of 10 acres requires assurance that the trees will be pollinated in the spring when the blossoms come.
Denise used to hire hives – one or two per acre at $65-$75 per hive. Four years ago she decided to keep her own bees and now has a colony of about 200,000, made up of 20 hives total with between 10,000 to 60,000 cells.
The honey is a by-product bonus of beekeeping. She enjoys the bees and says she could spend all day with them. They are rarely aggressive and when she needs to get down inside one of the hives, the smoker helps to quiet them.
Denise learned beekeeping from their neighbour Doug Crumback. He was instrumental in her ability to pick up on the subtleties such as what affects the taste and flavour of the honey and how she can influence that by planting certain types of flowers to obtain a more floral scent and taste in the summer. This year she harvested 500 pounds of honey and next years expects to get about 1000 pounds.
They also keep chickens mostly because it made sense with a family of five to have easy access to eggs. Denise makes sure they all go into the pen each night, and you can hear her saying, “here, chook, chook, chook” when she’s rounding them up. She likes to talk to the chickens.
article/photography by Stephanie Seaton