Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Thompson–Okanagan Region: Summerland Experimental Farm

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

While farming methods have evolved over millennia, the turn of the 20th century saw an increased focus on agricultural science in Canada. In 1886, the federal government established a network of agricultural research sites to study and promote modern methods of farming. This Experimental Farm Service conducted research on a variety of horticultural subjects, including soil management, livestock breeding and care, and crop research.

Given that British Columbia’s diverse landscape and climate support a wide variety of agricultural activities, the Experimental Farm Service set up farms across the province, including a site in Summerland, on the west side of Okanagan Lake. The Department of Agriculture purchased land from the SnPink’tn (Penticton Indian Band) and set up an irrigation agreement with the town of Summerland to establish the farm site.

Black-and-white photograph of the Summerland Experimental Farm, with young orchard trees in the foreground, and Okanagan Lake and rangeland in the background.

Summerland, B.C. (a020963)

The earliest tasks for the farm included clearing and breaking land, picking stones from the soil, and constructing buildings and an irrigation flume. As the semi-arid climate was well suited for growing tree fruits, an orchard was quickly established, and staff grew ground crops between the rows as the trees slowly matured. In the early years, staff also conducted studies on animal care with poultry, dairy cows and beef cattle, as well as sheep. Ornamental gardens were created in 1916, and they remain a popular site for locals and tourists.

In 1935, researchers from the National Research Council worked at the farm to investigate claims that pollution from a lead and zinc smelter in Trail, B.C., was damaging crops in Washington State. The team used the farm’s food processing laboratory to study the issue and determined that the crop failures stemmed from a boron deficiency in the soil, common in the area.

Black-and-white photograph of three men next to a greenhouse structure. One man is holding a mass of vegetation that obscures his upper body.

Experimental station for smelter fumes at Summerland Experimental Farm, September 1935 (a014567-v8)

In later years, the farm focused its research on the cultivation of tree fruits and grapes, as orchards, vineyards and wineries play an important role in the Okanagan economy. Throughout its history, the farm has been instrumental in developing many varieties of fruits, including Spartan apples, Coronation grapes and Stella cherries.

The experimental farm is now known as the Summerland Research and Development Centre. Its research aims to help the horticultural sector adapt to climate change and other challenges in the physical environment, respond to plant diseases and other biological threats, and expand their contributions to the economy and the community. The non-profit group Friends of the Summerland Ornamental Gardens now manages the historic public gardens.

Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

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