The Fofonoff Plum

By Linda (Osachoff) Haltigan

In 1973, after decades of hobby fruit-growing and breeding, Doukhobor farmer Wasil C. Fofonoff of Buchanan, Saskatchewan bred the hardy and delicious plum variety that bears his name and which today is a staple variety in orchards and gardens throughout the Prairies. Reproduced by permission from The Canora Courier, April 13, 1983.

Agriculturally speaking, prairie pride has traditionally centred around the rolling fields of wheat, barley and oats which have made this province internationally known as the Breadbasket of the World. But for Wasil C. Fofonoff of the Buchanan district, distinction arrived about 20 years after his lifelong hobby of fruit growing resulted in the origin and development of a prairie plum which bears his name.

Fofonoff literally reaped the fruits of his labours in the 1960’s, when after years of experimentation with many varieties of fruit, he noticed and nurtured a small, chance seedling in his orchard. “I noticed the differences right away – its qualities were special in comparison to the range of plums we have available for growth in Saskatchewan,” he said.

The Fofonoff Plum is lime green with a red blush and think skin (4 cm diameter). It is freestone with light green very sweet flesh. A delicious plum for fresh eating right off the tree. Matures around the middle of August with fruit averaging in 4 cm in diameter. Selected by Wasil C. Fofonoff of Buchanan, SK in 1973. Photo: Prairie Hardy Nursery.

Traditionally, two strains of plums are grown successfully in this area; the Dandy and the Pembina, Fofonoff explained. Although the Dandy is fairly productive and hardy, if eaten off the tree, the flavour can best be described as “fair,” he said. And when processed, the flavour is “hardly that fair.” The Pembina, on the other hand, although of very high quality, is suitable for only the southerly zones of this province. Thus, for about 75 per cent of the growing area of Saskatchewan, it is unsuitable.

The Fofonoff plum has managed to overcome these problems. The fruit is very flavourful, Fofonoff said. “If a basket of the fruit is taken into a room and then removed later, an occupant of the room would continue to smell its perfumed fragrance. Also, the fruit is of very high quality eaten off the tree.”

He went on to describe the plum as very hardy for this area; an early ripener and of a fairly good quality when cooked.

Originated by Accident

As so often happens, the Fofonoff plum came about almost as an accident. Its originator compared it with the Macintosh apple, a strain of which has achieved world popularity and which also began as a chance seedling.

Chance seedlings, a freak of nature, cannot be duplicated, and thus it is vital that they be recognized very early in their development and nurtured. Even after the plum tree has grown, it took between five to seven years before it became commercially available, Fofonoff explained.

The plum had to undergo a series of intensive tests, which were supervised by the University of Saskatchewan, with whom Fofonoff has cooperated in many areas of experimentation of fruit growing. The plant was tested for its hardiness, its productivity, its ripening characteristics and most important, its quality. In determining its quality, researchers discovered that the plum was a good keeper, was of a firm flesh, a freestone and had very tender skin.

After testing, the plum was finally released to the Lakeshore Tree Farm Nurseries at Saskatoon, for propagation under the instruction of D.K. Robinson. Now available through the Brandon Nurseries, the plum is also propagated in several other nurseries in the west.

Appreciation for Fofonoff’s achievement, however, is purely in token form. Although he has been recognized with certificates and other honours, all his work with fruit growing has been purely on a volunteer basis. And even though the fruit he developed is now available for consumer use, Fofonoff will not see a penny of the profits.

“We tried to obtain a patent for royalties for the plum from Ottawa,” he said, “and were flatly refused. The release of a new plant is not subject to royalties for origination in this country, although in Europe, originators are reimbursed.”

Wasil C. Fofonoff (1915-1992) of Buchanan, SK. Originator of the Fofonoff Plum.

But, he’s quick to point out, he is “not in it for the money. There is a certain pride one takes in this sort of achievement. All a plant breeder can hope for is the acclaim and recognition from his fellow growers and the research staff involved. To see the goodness of the fruit available to the public is reward enough.”

Fofonoff is one of a handful of independent plant breeders who work in conjunction with the University of Saskatchewan. Most experimentation is done within test orchards on the grounds of the university, but in a few cases, the college of agriculture recruits the assistance of a person such as Fofonoff, and works closely on research with them. The University of Saskatchewan has been recognized as the western centre for this type of research and Fofonoff was pleased to co-operate with it when the partnership began in the 1960’s.

Started Growing Fruit as Hobby in 1939

He began growing fruit as a hobby when he started farming in 1939. The small-scale orchard, as it began, now includes a large range of pears, several varieties of crab apples and standard apples, “quite a range” of plums, cherry hybrids and related red sour cherries and his latest project, apricots.

His colleagues at the university have included Dr. Nelson and the late D.R. Robinson. “It is all scientific work,” he said. “The university staff regularly visit my orchard, check it under strict controls and make sure that the work is well recorded. However, scientific knowledge on its own is not enough. You have to have the green thumb, or it just won’t work,” he acknowledged.

When asked if his current work with apricots will reach the same acclaim as did his plum, Fofonoff replied that the chances were “one in a million”. “It (the chance seedling) all depends on nature. There’s very little a person can do, as the superior qualities are born in nature. The trick is not to ignore it – to quickly spot it and develop it.”

Studies Dormancy of Apricot Seed

Fofonoff has been working on breaking the dormancy of the apricot seed – an intricate and painstaking procedure. Dormancy must be broken so that the plants will germinate in the spring and the process is accomplished in the medium of sand, which is placed in a can that has holes bored in its bottom in order to let out excess moisture. The container is placed in a cool place, such as a basement and then time, the vital factor, plays its part. Fofonoff estimates that while plums take 150 days to break their dormancy, the period for apricots is 45 days.

During the 45 days, the plant has to take its shell and send out roots. After the dormancy has broken, probably in early May, some seedlings will be ready for planting.

As well as growing plants from seed, Fofonoff is experienced with other forms of propagation, such as grafting.

Grafting is a process which involves changing of the plant material of the under stock to the top work material, he explained. The advantage of grafting or budding comes when one wants to change the same species of fruit to a different type of the same strain.

“The success of grafting evolves on the atmospheric condition of each spring, the hardiness of the under stock and the variety of the top work,” he said. “What you are looking for is successful vegetative alterations.”

The Fofonoff Plum is a hardy Doukhobor-bred, Saskatchewan-bred plum. Photo: DNA Gardens.

Orchard Described as Compact

In describing his orchard, Fofonoff says it is as “compact as possible” and must be kept that way to ensure rabbits do not damage the plants. He says his soil is of average quality, but is built up with quantities of farmyard manure. In periods of drought, water is provided by means of a well on his farm.

Fofonoff said he will continue his research as long as he can and even though he may never again develop a strain of fruit to bear his name, he is satisfied with his work. “The reputation of the plum has grown,” he said. “In years of surplus, I sell the fruit and most of my customers say it is of higher or better quality than what is often available in stores.”

The Doukhobor Fruit Store in Cranbrook, BC, 1925-1926

By Jonathan J. Kalmakoff

While the Doukhobor connection to B.C. places like Grand Forks and Castlegar are well known, few today would associate them with Cranbrook. Yet for a brief period in 1925-1926, Cranbrook was the easternmost commercial outpost of the Doukhobor communal organization, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB), in that province.

In the fall of 1925, after an impressive apple harvest, the Grand Forks Branch of the CCUB looked eastward to potential distribution points in the East Kootenay and Crowsnest Pass region to market and sell its apples. A Doukhobor trading store in Blairmore, AB was established in 1924 to this end, but ceased operation in early 1925 amidst a legal dispute.

After unsuccessful negotiations with fruit sellers in Cranbrook to handle their apples, the Grand Forks Doukhobors decided to establish a wholesale branch of their own in that city by October 1925.[1]

Strategically located near the western outlet of the Crowsnest Pass, Cranbrook was an important Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) junction for shipping goods east through the Rockies to the Prairies, northwest to the Kimberly mines, north via Fort Steele up the Kootenay and Columbia River valleys to Golden, or south via Kingsgate to the United States on the Spokane International Railroad.  

View of the Doukhobor fruit warehouse at 124 Norbury Avenue (now 24 10th Avenue). The Star Theatre is located directly across, while the Canadian Hotel is located beside it to the right. Courtesy Prairie Towns.

To this end, in early November 1925, the Doukhobors leased the former Cranbrook Cooperative Stores Ltd. (CCS) building at 124 Norbury Avenue (now 24 10th Avenue) next to the Canadian Hotel and across from the Star Theatre in Cranbrook.[2] Built in 1910, it was a large 48 x 70 foot, two-story wood-frame warehouse with storefront façade, freight elevator, full concrete basement and tin gambrel roof.[3] It was conveniently located three blocks east of the CPR depot.

Within days, the CCUB shipped “several” railcars of apples from its Grand Forks packing houses to Cranbrook.[4] To give some idea of the volume, each CPR railcar held between 500 and 800 40-lb boxes of apples; and if 3 or more railcars were shipped, then between 30 to 100 tons or more of Doukhobor-grown apples arrived in Cranbrook from their Grand Forks orchards. 

In Cranbrook, a Doukhobor work crew (stationed there from Grand Forks) unloaded the apples from the railcars at the CPR depot and transported them by horse and wagon teams to the CCS building, where they were put into cold storage. From there, the Doukhobors sold and delivered wagon-loads of apples throughout the city and surrounding area. Stock was also shipped via railroad to outlying towns, villages and camps. The distribution outlet was managed by Joseph P. Shukin, the BC Vice-President of the CCUB.[5]

Directory listing for the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in Cranbrook. Wrigley’s B.C. Directory, 1926.

By conducting their own wholesale distribution, the Doukhobors were able to sell their produce to East Kootenay retailers and retail customers at prevailing market prices while earning a larger profit margin than their competitors, since the apples were grown, picked, packed and handled by unpaid communal labour, and were sold without the intervention of middlemen or commission agents. In this regard, the Doukhobor ‘tree to consumer’ approach was an early precursor to the ‘farm gate’ model of agricultural product marketing.

The CCUB at Cranbrook launched a major advertising campaign (somewhat uncharacteristically of Doukhobors) in the local newspaper, the Cranbrook Herald, between November 1925 and February 1926 to publicly market and produce its produce.

A listing of its advertised apple varieties demonstrates the biodiversity of the CCUB fruit-growing operation in Grand Forks: Northern Spy, Wagner, Spitzenberg Greenings, Ben Davis, Alexander, Newton, Baxter, Ontario, Rome Beauty, Snows, Jonathan and Delicious.[6] Several of these varieties can no longer be found today. Prices ranged from $1.50 to $2.00 per 40-lb box. Free wagon delivery was offered to any part of the city.

Doukhobor apple advertisement, Cranbrook Herald, November 12, 1925 to January 28, 1926.

Interestingly, the CCUB Cranbrook outlet also offered chicken feed for sale at $2.30 per 100-lb bag.[7] This consisted of weed seeds, cracked and broken grains, bran and other screenings – milling waste generated from the CCUB flour milling operation in Grand Forks. In this way, the Doukhobors generated an additional revenue stream from an otherwise waste byproduct. 

By February 1926, the CCUB at Cranbrook ceased newspaper advertising, and within the next several weeks, successfully sold out its apple stock from the Fall 1925 harvest. It is estimated that the Doukhobors grossed between $2,900.00 and $7,700.00 ($45,800.00 to $121,600.00 in today’s dollars) or more in revenue from their three-plus month stay in the city. The CCUB subsequently gave up its lease on the Norbury Avenue warehouse and the Doukhobors departed back to their communal settlements in Grand Forks.

The CCUB never re-established a commercial presence in Cranbrook after 1926, opting for other marketing and distribution strategies instead. However, their brief tenure in that city demonstrated the nimbleness and practicality with which the Doukhobors approached their business dealings. As for their one-time fruit warehouse, it still stands today and remains in use as a business premises.[8]  

After Word

Special thanks to David Humphrey of the Cranbrook History Centre Archives for his assistance in tracing the history of the warehouse building.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in the Cranbrook Townsman February 17, 2022 edition as “How the Doukhobors Brought their Applies to Cranbrook.” It has subsequently appeared in the March 3, 2022 edition of the Trail News.

End Notes


[1] Cranbrook Herald, November 12, 1925.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The building was constructed in March 1910 by G.H. Gilpin of the East Kootenay Produce and Provision Co., which operated there until December 1911. In January 1912, the business was reorganized as East Kootenay Mercantile Co., occupying the premises until July 1913. In January 1914, a half-interest in the building was sold to W.B. McFarlane, who ran his Cranbrook Cooperative Stores Ltd. there until June 1917. The building was then leased to various short-term tenants, including Western Grocers from October to November 1924: Cranbrook Herald, 1910.03.24 to 1924.11.07; Cranbrook Courier, 1924.10.24. 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wrigley’s British Columbia Directory (1926) at 95.

[6] Cranbrook Herald, November 19, 1925 to January 28, 1926.

[7] Ibid.

[8] By July 1926, the building was re-occupied by the East Kootenay Lumber Co. In February 1927, it was purchased by Hanson Garage, which added a 50-foot addition to the rear of the building. By 1946, it was taken over by Cranbrook Auto Wreckers, and in 1947, by East Kootenay Equipment Co. which operated there until 1968. In 1968, it housed Schmaltz International Ltd. for two years before it was re-occupied by B.C. Hydro in 1970. In the 2000s, it was occupied by Uniglobe Travel, and most currently, by The Paw Shop and MJ’s Floral Boutique. Cranbrook Herald, 1927.02.24, 1932.05.26, 1946.10.03, 1947.06.05; Cranbrook Courier, 1932.05.26; 1962.11.28; Lethbridge Herald, 1968.08.23, 1970.07.23; Cranbrook & East Kootenay Directory, 1946, 1953-1954.