Most folks visiting Osoyoos BC would probably be unaware of a large corporate entity that operates 13 businesses in the south Okanagan area. I suspect it may well be the most significant corporate business in the area, generating income close to $100 million per year. That may not sound like much in Alberta, where big corporations operate in the billions. That corporate entity is the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation (OIBDC); it was created by the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) to manage its various interests. The OIB still uses their old school name rather than the more politically correct First Nation handle that most indigenous reserves now use. Many First Nations are now changing their anglicized names to their original indigenous language names. As admirable as that may be, some of the new/old names are unpronounceable by the unfamiliar.
The OIB success story began with their extensive vineyards originating with plantings in 1968 in the Oliver BC area. Credit is due to the OIB council of the day that had the genius and risk foresight to invest in a seemingly unfamiliar business. Vineyards have existed in the Okanagan for over a hundred years, but few were of the high-quality vinifera type of grape that OIB planted. Instead, back then, the most infamous BC wine in Alberta were gallon jugs of Calona Royal Red, the favourite cheap wine of derelicts and partying teenagers. I understand it was improved over the years, but its seedy reputation persevered; it may well have disappeared by now. Another feature of the original OIB vineyard was that it was to be a large commercial operation by Canadian standards and would produce wine under its own label, the iconic “Inkameep” it’s now called NK’MIP, which is closer to the original Okanagan indigenous language. The vineyard operation has expanded from its commercial base in Oliver and now includes a vineyard on the east bank of the Town of Osoyoos. This vineyard specializes in premium grape wine varieties that are marketed through a variety of retail initiatives and labels.
As with so much in agriculture and food production and processing, the wine business has seen consolidation and marketing alliances. I expect OIBDC management and Nk’Mip winery managers recognized the benefit of such national marketing opportunities, and they are partners with other national wine growers and marketers. That’s seen their wines marketed in more markets beyond their traditional BC and Alberta retail base. Another clever marketing angle is seeing Nk’Mip wines sold at native-owned casinos across North America. Like most large vineyard operations, Nk’Mip utilizes high-tech technology like mechanical harvesting at its main operation, although hand picking is still used at the Osoyoos premium wine operation. Like so much in agriculture, viticulture is a combination of art, science and luck. Pesticides and herbicides are used sparingly to address actual problems; contrary to green group propaganda, commercial growers of any crop are loathe to use such costly products. In the dry Okanagan, vineyards are irrigated, and fertilizers are used to address specific plant needs. Interestingly pruning plays a big part in viticulture as only certain low-hanging grape clusters are desirable for winemaking purposes; the biggest yield is not always the goal. Pruning concentrates flavour, sugar content etc., in fewer grapes, but that’s a whole other story. To achieve the high quality of its wines, OIBDC and its partners have hired the best winery managers and viticulturists. OIBDC has shown it’s prepared to engage expertise from anywhere if such folks can’t be found from within their own band. That brings up a vital element of the OIB success.
Longtime OIB Chief Clarence Louie has stated that OIBDC businesses are designed to benefit his people through employment and band revenue. To say the least, he has succeeded outstandingly, and OIB employs many more people than there are actual band members. He has shown canny business sense creating a corporate business structure that is transparent and accountable. Chief Louie and the OIB have become legendary as a very successful self-sustaining First Nation. It’s not the only success story, Alberta has some of the largest Indigenous business operations in Canada, like the billion-dollar Fort McKay First Nation business operation. The difference is Chief Louie had to figure out how to create a successful business operation without easy access to lucrative oil and gas resources. OIB had only 32,000 dry acres to work with – and Nk’Mip vineyards was the start of the OIB success story.
Will Verboven is an ag opinion writer and ag policy advisor.