Update: Agriculture community mourns loss of Sardinha

Summerland grower dead at 52 from apparent heart attack, leaves behind wife and two sons

Joe Sardinha

The tree fruit industry lost one of its most ardent supporters this weekend with the death of Summerland orchardist Joe Sardinha.

An outpouring of praise for the industry leader and condolences for his wife wife Julie and two grown children. has followed on news of his sudden death Saturday from a heart attack at the age of 52.

Sardinha, a humble man, would no doubt be embarrassed by the praise. The son of Portuguese immigrants, he grew up on the family farm in Summerland, taking over the 4.5 hectares for himself 33 years ago.

Though Sardinha might have been happiest working amongst the trees of his orchard, he  also spent a dozen of those years tirelessly advocating for the fruit industry, first as vice-president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, then as president from 2005 to 2012, during some of the most trying times the fruit industry has seen.

“He succeeded me and I retired in 2004, so he was actually president for eight years,” said Penney Gambell, BCFGA past-president. “When he was president, I think it was very difficult, government had chosen to pull back from the tree fruit industry. I know he tried his very best and was successful in keeping things like the Sterile Insect Release program. He did get extensions to the replant programs for us, but government was really taking a hands-off policy.”

During his term, Sardinha led the BCFGA through a massive restructuring that saw amalgamation of the packing houses and an increased focus on quality of the fruit produced in the province.

But despite low market prices, rising costs and seeming government indifference, Sardinha maintained not only a drive and vision to better the industry but an unflagging optimism, finding a bright side even when faced with problems, as in 2009, when apples on the trees were of smaller size than ideal for marketing. That just made them more ideal for children in school lunch and snack programs, according to Sardinha.

“If you don’t have any optimism, you’re putting up the white flag and the industry has been around too long to do that. Anyone interested in the industry is not prepared to surrender,” he has been quoted as saying.

His devotion to the industry gained Sardinha the respect of growers throughout the valley, admiration that carried on even after he stepped down as BCFGA president.

“Joe’s death was totally unexpected. Everywhere I went, people asked how Joe was keeping – out of admiration and respect for Joe. He loved his family, farming and the farm community. I speak for all tree fruit growers in saying we are deeply saddened by this news,” said Jeet Dukhia, current BCFGA president.

Oliver-area orchardist Greg Norton remembers Sardinha as a great leader who gave selflessly to the industry. Leaders like that come along rarely, Norton said.

“There have been a few in our history, but not many,” said Norton. “He was a real gentleman and a clever negotiator. He was persistent and always did it with grace. That’s a rare quality.”

Penticton MLA Dan Ashton, a farmer himself, echoed Norton’s comments.

“You couldn’t have met a nicer man, a gentleman who was incredibly concerned about the state of agriculture in the province. A gentleman that had positive solutions and did his best to make a difference,” said Ashton. “Both personally and on behalf of all of us here in the Okanagan, our hearts go out to the family.”

It was rare to meet with Sardinha without being touched by his optimism and leave feeling a bit better about the prospects for the fruit industry. He will be missed.

*****

Posted: Sept. 2

Joe Sardinha, past-president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, passed away suddenly on Aug. 31.

Sardinha, simply known as “Joe” to all he met, was a popular leader of the industry organization, outlasting countless agricultural ministers during the six years of his presidency, from 2005 to 2011.

Sardinha’s untimely death comes at age 52, leaving his wife Julie and two grown children. The family has asked for privacy as they recover from this unexpected death.

“Joe’s death was totally unexpected. Everywhere I went, people asked how Joe was keeping – out of admiration and respect for Joe. He loved his family, farming and the farm community. I speak for all tree fruit growers in saying we are deeply saddened by this news,” said Jeet Dukhia, current BCFGA president.

Sardinha was the child of Portuguese immigrants, the second generation to farm in the Okanagan.

“It was the land of opportunity. Quite often they would go back to Portugal, marry and bring their wives over and have families here,” said Sardinha, speaking of the wave of Portuguese immigration from the mid-50s to early 60s. “And before you know it they’re orchard owners themselves.”

During his term, Sardinha led the BCFGA through a massive restructuring that saw consolidation of the packing houses and an increased focus on quality of the fruit produced in the province.

But despite many difficulties: frosts, hail, low fruit prices, rising costs, Joe remained unfailingly optimistic, even managing to find a silver lining during a year when the apples coming off the tree were smaller than ideal.

“Even if this year’s fruit is a smaller size, that only makes it more ideal for children in school lunch and snack programs,” Sardinha was quoted as saying in 2009.

Or talking about low returns on the 2008 crop:”It’s definitely not all bad news. You have to remain optimistic,” Sardinha said in early 2009, noting that ambrosia, one of the market leading apples might be selling at a dollar a box less than the previous year, but that still translates into a very good return for the growers.

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