Putting down roots

Rob Antle
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Cranberry giant selects N.B. over N.L. in big bet on industry's future

Eric Jonjak pilots his big truck over the narrow dirt roads cutting through the massive agricultural site.

He gives way to the heavy machinery that trundles across this vast tract carved out of the New Brunswick landscape.

From top left, Ocean Spray is developing 124 acres of cranberry bogs at the Pleasant Ridge site near Rogersville, N.B. The Massachusetts-based company has long-term plans to develop 1,900 acres at the New Brunswick location. Construction material sits on

Rogersville, N.B. -

Eric Jonjak pilots his big truck over the narrow dirt roads cutting through the massive agricultural site.

He gives way to the heavy machinery that trundles across this vast tract carved out of the New Brunswick landscape.

Jonjak points out the features that led Ocean Spray - the Massachusetts-based granddaddy of the cranberry industry - to select the location for its first-ever company-owned farm. (All other sites are owned by individual members of the Ocean Spray co-operative.)

"Beautiful sand - that was the key to the site, was the sand," Jonjak says.

Two years ago, Jonjak sold all of his marshes in his Wisconsin home, and planned to retire from the cranberry business.

But then Ocean Spray came calling.

The company was looking to build a giant cranberry farm outside the United States.

Jonjak signed on as a consultant. He helped Ocean Spray choose the location of its planned $90-million project.

"It was kind of fun to look around all of Canada saying, 'If I wanted to build a marsh up here, where would it be?'" Jonjak says.

Newfoundland was among the sites Ocean Spray considered.

But ultimately, the company decided New Brunswick was a much better choice. "We figure that there's a real good opportunity for success here."

That decision means Newfoundland and Labrador is going down a different path as it works to develop its own cranberry industry.

New Brunswick's efforts will be driven by private sector investment from the unquestioned industry giant.

Newfoundland and Labrador's plans, by contrast, will be dependent largely on taxpayer support.

Both jurisdictions are pushing forward to develop cranberries as the industry grapples with challenging market conditions.

And both are convinced they can make it work.

Eric Jonjak says there were several factors that counted against Newfoundland when Ocean Spray was shopping around for the site of what is expected to become the largest cranberry farm in North America.

"Number one, it's just a little colder."

He says that a visit to Newfoundland marshes the year before last did not yield the desired results.

"We were on beds after they had been harvested, and those berries, even at the end of harvest ,were still very small, and that's an indication that you're short of degree days," Jonjak says. "You just don't have quite enough warmth in the summer season ...

"You could grow cranberries, but again, we don't want to just have them survive, we want them to thrive. We want the most productive situation we can get, and that's why we're here."

There were also transportation issues related to setting up shop in Newfoundland.

"I was concerned that we would have to move our crop off the island to the mainland. Now, on the other hand, we're developing more of a European market all the time, so you could actually concentrate your fruit right in Newfoundland and then put it on ships and take it to Europe or anywhere. But at this point, since there's already some beds here (in New Brunswick), it's easier to visualize yourself putting a production plant in here rather than putting a brand new one in Newfoundland."

And Jonjak says government rules mean only vines matured in Newfoundland greenhouses can be planted in the province.

There are pros and cons to that, he notes.

It minimizes disease. But vines grown in greenhouses require a lot more handling, and must be planted as little plugs.

In New Brunswick, most of the vines are in bales, and can be spread out by machine.

Ocean Spray is not receiving any government cash to develop its New Brunswick operation. The company plans to invest tens of millions of its own money.

In fact, Ocean Spray is actually paying the standard rate to lease Crown land at the site.

The arrival of the Massachusetts-based firm was welcome news to a region that has many similarities to central Newfoundland, where this province's cranberry industry hopes to take root.

The Miramichi region is struggling with a downturn in the forestry sector.

This is the first time in the history of the Miramichi that its sawmills are all idle and silent, says Rogersville Mayor Bertrand LeBlanc.

LeBlanc says he first got a call from New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham's office in December 2008, advising him of Ocean Spray's interest in the town.

"It was kind of a bombshell," LeBlanc recalls. "It was a good bombshell, though."

There was a lot of enthusiasm, he says. Officials expected no more than 50 people to show up for the January 2009 announcement that Ocean Spray was coming to town.

Instead, the local Legion hall was jam-packed with more than 300 residents. Others were turned away at the door.

The reason for that is simple, according to Rogersville Coun. Yvon Bourque - the promise of jobs.

"You're not starting with that many jobs, but you do have jobs. The thing is you have to realize, a lot of the money is being spent in the restaurants, the motels, the service stations ... So it's an ongoing process."

Pierrette Robichaud says tempering expectations is important.

Robichaud works as liaison between the community and Ocean Spray.

"It's been a quite exciting year," she says.

Her job - which is funded by the New Brunswick government - is to make sure that people understand what is going on with the local cranberry initiative, and assist all sides.

With all the big mills on the Miramichi closing down, residents are looking for work.

Ocean Spray's plans are not a quick fix to what ails the region, Robichaud cautions. The local cranberry industry will take time to develop.

"They couldn't replace the wood industry in a matter of months," she says.

The biggest challenge, she notes, is explaining that to people.

Robichaud says they have received 350 resumes for about a dozen jobs on the farm to date.

The construction phase also resulted in employment.

The town proper has a population of about 1,200; the greater Rogersville area, roughly 4,000.

Robichaud says there are big plans in the works. Those include a cranberry-themed festival. Rogersville officials visited a harvest festival in the U.S. that attracted 50,000 people in two days.

While Robichaud acknowledges that those numbers are not likely to be repeated in New Brunswick, she says there are many opportunities to explore.

"We hope it's going to mean jobs, but even more than jobs," she says.

"We figure we can cash in on other sectors, like agri-tourism, (the) festival, and we're even dreaming of being an excellence centre for cranberries, where they will do research."

The closest such research facility, she notes, is in Massachusetts.

The ultimate long-term goal is a processing facility that could employ as many as 100 people.

° ° °

Out at the Pleasant Ridge site, work is progressing on this sunny May afternoon.

Big bales of vines sit in neat rows, waiting to be deployed. The plans for this year are to plant about 125 acres.

The market for cranberries has tightened in recent years, Ocean Spray consultant Eric Jonjak says, but he is confident in the company's plans.

Ocean Spray has developed new projects, like Craisins (sweetened dried cranberries), and is experimenting with different types of juices.

Over time, Ocean Spray could plant about 1,900 acres at the site.

"But it'll be the market that decides how fast that's done," Jonjak says.

Robichaud amplifies that point.

The goal, she says, was to have all 1,900 acres planted within five years.

"But as you know, the market has been down, so they don't know. They're going to start with this 125 acres and 100 acres next year and then they will see. They might wait a couple of years before going on to phase three, four, five."

Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador - without significant private-sector investment, but armed with wads of government cash and more than a decade of alternative crop-development work - is on the verge of its own major expansion into cranberry production.

rantle@thetelegram.com




Cash Crops

The province is focusing time and effort into developing the local cranberry industry. Dozens of acres are being planted. Millions of provincial and federal tax dollars are being spent.
Over three editions, The Telegram is looking at the province's plans for cranberries, and what is happening elsewhere in the sector.
Coming up:
Weekend. Prospects for growth - following more than a decade of research work, and thanks to significant taxpayer cash, central Newfoundland is becoming the epicentre of the province's fledgling cranberry sector.
Monday. Gloom or boom? - not everybody is bullish on the outlook for cranberries, including one Massachusetts-based industry veteran. But others, including local proponents, feel the future is bright.

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Rogersville United States Wisconsin Canada Miramichi North America Europe Massachusetts Pleasant Ridge

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