The Fruit Man: Bringing fresh fruit and produce to the Arctic

“The Fruit Man” Bill Rutherford in Inuvik, Northwest Territories . Photo: Eilís QuinnFor many, driving a truck trailer packed with fresh fruits and vegetables along remote Arctic highways and across frozen lakes and rivers may not sound like fun. But for the ‘The Fruit Man,” aka Bill Rutherford, it’s hard to image life another way.

It’s no secret that quality fresh fruits and vegetables can be hard to come by in Canada’s Arctic. Given the lack of road access in many northern communities, by the time produce has been shipped and has braved a series of drastic temperature changes, it often arrives in the country’s remote Arctic communities much worse for wear.

That’s where Rutherford, who got his start by running an orchard in Canada’s westernmost province of British Columbia, steps in. For 27 years, he’s been bringing fresh produce to remote Arctic communities like Inuvik, Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.

Each season he braves everything from mechanical problems to protecting his produce from the Arctic’s bonebreaking temperatures.

One day this winter, Radio Canada International journalist Eilís Quinn caught up with Rutherford in Inuvik, a community of around 3500 located 200km above the Arctic Circle. He’d set up his fruit and vegetable trailer in a downtown parking lot.

In between a steady stream of customers, including everyone from families to taxi drivers, Rutherford chatted about his unique business and just why he does what he does.

To listen, click here -> {play}/media/jukebox/BillRutherford.

Questions:

Tell us how you got the idea to start hauling fruits and vegetables up and down the Dempster Highway?

I started off with an orchard in B.C. at that time I was shipping to the packing house and I just figured I could sell better on my own so I just bought a truck and went off.

Did you already know the Arctic?Bill Rutherford’s portable produce store set up in a downtown Inuvik parking lot. Photo: Eilís Quinn

No. I’d never been here before.

So how did you get from never having been here to driving a fruit truck up here?

First part of August in ’85 I decided well I might as well just go to Inuvik. I was already most of the way there.

I got in here about the middle of August in ’85 and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve got another address in Kamloops (British Columbia). That’s kind of my home base, I just work up here. But I have a place to stay here when I’m in town.

There’s three grocery stores here, what are you offering people that they can’t get at some of these other stores?

The main thing that I work on is freshness of the product. That’s how I got all my white hair was just trying to get the right produce that I want to sell. There’s always something on every trip that isn’t up to snuff but you have to try. I wouldn’t have any advantage if I was hauling the same stuff that they were getting presenting in the store.

The customers seem pretty loyal. Why do you think that is?

I think maybe some price and quality of produce. And then of course I’m a real nice guy.

How many years have you been doing this now?

I’m at about 26 and a half right (years) now. Next August will (2012) I’ll be at 27.

Bill Rutherford helping customers inside his mobile produce trailer. Photo: Eilís QuinnGive us a sense of how many months or weeks you’re actually on the road in a particular year?

It’s nine months of the year. We’ll have break up here pretty soon. That’s when our snow all disappears. We have ice crossings. The rivers they begin to thaw and you can’t cross the ice any more so you have to wait for the time that the ice is gone. Or they shut the road down because the road starts to soften up. The crossing starts to softens up. You can’t get across until the ferries are back in. That’s usually about a month. Usually in the first week of June we’re back on the road.

After 27 years what’s the most rewarding part of this job?

The comments you get from most people. They’ll tell you thanks for doing what you’re doing and coming. Seeing their smiles and their comments about the produce stuff, that’s the big thing.

 

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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