Vernon’s pick of the crop fruit market for 60 years is going back to its roots.
Swan Lake Nurseryland has been a staple for North Okanagan families, supporting North Okanagan farmers, since 1959.
“Dad and mom started it in the late ’50s and my brother in law and sister were with them. And then I joined a few years later. I was probably around 25,” said Mike Kowaluk, 86, sitting in the old lunch room that used to be reserved for tour bus drivers.
When the fruit market and garden centre first started it was a seasonal operation, and several factors have led the business to the decision to once again close for the winter in its sixth decade.
“Obviously the demand for gardening drops in the winter and supply of local produce diminishes over time,” said Kirk Hughes, Kowaluk’s son/third generation employee. “With increased competition and all the different options offered to shoppers these days we have been finding that winter revenues have been declining and costs increasing. We have chosen to return to our roots so to speak and really focus our attention on our strengths.”
Swan Lake will close Oct. 31 with plans to reopen in February to prepare for the 2020 season with all the services, including bakery and deli, floral and tropical products and convenience groceries.
The fruit market and garden centre has grown substantially since Kowaluk’s parents first started the small fruit stand.
“It was a shack,” said Kowaluk, in the now two-storey building blooming with produce and products, not to mention the enormous greenhouses and garden centre.
He remembers selling cherries for 29 cents a pound — compared to this year’s price of $3.99, which Kowaluk says is actually cheap.
While prices have grown with the times, so too have the customers.
“Over the years traffic increased. We enjoy a huge customer base from Alberta and other parts of the country. We draw a lot of traffic from Oliver and Osoyoos to Revelstoke to Kamloops,” he said, adding that in 1989, the family decided to remain open year-round.
Tragedy hit the store July 6, 1993, when a fire broke out in the store, burning it to the ground. That same day, the man who built the landmark cedar building died.
Since then, growth has continued at the store.
Even with parking for almost 80 cars, “it’s not enough for maybe 10 or 12 weekends of the year,” Kowaluk said.
It’s a popular spot for locals as well as tourists.
“We used to have a lot of tour busses, at their peak there were 22 in one day,” said Kowaluk, noting they only see about half a dozen a day now.
It’s the local community that keeps Swan Lake busy, as more and more people seek out locally-grown produce, which benefits both the grower and the retailer.
“We’re really very conscious of buying and selling local product. Over the years, there’s more local product available.”
Plus there are the generations of people who continue to make Swan Lake their go-to stop.
“We enjoy that customer that grandma used to shop here and now the daughters and younger kids do.”
But times have changed, with one struggle remaining consistent over the years and continuing today.
“It’s a challenge. Over the years it’s staffing, and now it’s even more difficult,” said Kowaluk, who said younger generations only want to work on their terms.
Swan Lake employs up to 70 people during peak periods and 25 in the winter months.
While the decision to return to a seasonal shop will put some out of work in the winter, the nurseryland will remain a prominent feature at the north end of Vernon.
Just like another local staple, the Vernon Winter Carnival, which is also marking its 60th anniversary in 2020.
“There’s not too many events that have survived that long,” said Kowaluk, who remembers chairing the carnival back when it was only half-a-dozen years old.
Surrounded by scrap books of old newspaper advertisements, Kowaluk is proud of the growth at his shop, as well as Vernon in general.
“I think it’s growing in an orderly fashion, not helter skelter,” he said, adding that the near future will likely see on overpass on the westside.