Horticulture pilot project providing new skills to Okanagan farm workers

By College Relations | November 27, 2023

Person smiling on a tractor
Bob Atkinson at his South Okanagan farm.

Semi-retired and looking for a new challenge, South Okanagan resident Bob Atkinson turned to farming five years ago and now counts hundreds of nectarine, peach and cherry trees on his orchard at Debeck Farms.

Atkinson was among close to 20 Okanagan farm workers and owners that were the first to complete the Horticulture Upskill Program at Okanagan College, a pilot program designed to provide expanded skills and tangible learning to agricultural workers employed by the tree fruit and wine grape industries. 

“There was a wealth of information in the course and the instructors were very keen and enthusiastic about sharing information and they were also very patient,” said Atkinson. “There was a lot of practical experience as well as academic learning and ways to improve your skills. Everyone enjoyed it and hopefully it helps improve the product that is delivered on the farm.” 

On Nov. 28, Okanagan College is hosting OC Cultivates, a panel discussion hosted by CBC’s Sarah Penton and including experts from the food, wine and tourism sectors discussing the future of the industries.

Two cohorts of English-speaking participants completed the program this fall and another group of Spanish-speaking workers are set to begin the program with a Spanish translator in February 2024. The program was designed for farm workers who are employed in B.C.’s tree fruit and wine industries, providing the employees with baseline skills in several areas of the farming industry. 

“The Horticulture Upskill Program is preparing domestic and foreign workers to make an immediate impact in supporting the families and people working hard in B.C.’s orchards and vineyards,” said Pam Alexis, B.C. Minister of Agriculture and Food. “By partnering with Okanagan College, we’re increasing the number of skilled farm workers in B.C. which will benefit our communities and local economies.” 

Farm workers enrolled in the pilot program receive training in areas including first aid, tractor repair, small engine repair, forklift operation and pesticide management. The courses are available to anyone employed in the B.C. tree fruit or wine grape industries and are held at OC’s Kelowna campus. Courses are scheduled in the afternoon, evening and on weekends, allowing workers to take the month-long training while continuing to work. 

“This program is elevating individual expertise and cultivating a more robust and skilled workforce in the Okanagan,” said Selina Robinson, Minister of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills. “As the first of its kind program in B.C., Okanagan College is leading the way in agricultural education and are fostering a thriving and resilient future for the Okanagan and its agricultural industry."

In February, the provincial government announced a $44.8M investment at OC to fund the construction of a new Centre for Food, Wine and Tourism at the Kelowna campus. The new building will be home to OC's Okanagan Chef School, and programming aligned to regional food, beverage and hospitality sectors.

“At Okanagan College we are continually working with communities and with industries that need support to upskill and reskill workers,” said Neil Fassina, OC President. “Here in the Okanagan, the tree fruit and wine grape sector relies on their workers to have the expertise and training required, and this pilot Horticulture Upskill Program is one way our College helps support both the industry and local communities.”

The Horticulture Upskill Program is the first of its kind to be offered at a post-secondary institution in B.C. and was a designed with input from the Tree Fruit Industry Stabilization Plan to help the industry access and retain qualified domestic and foreign workers.  

Once the third group of students has completed its program early next year, the pilot program will be reviewed and more details will be provided about further intakes.




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