Prospects for growth

Rob Antle
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N.L. has big plans and big hopes for cranberries

Bill Butler surveys the broad expanse of land he hopes will diversify his business. By this weekend, he hopes to have more than 12 acres of cranberries planted.

Butler has been harvesting peat at the site since the early 1980s. Hi-Point Industries sells the peat to soak up oil and other fuel spills. Cranberries are a good reclamation plan for peat bogs that have been depleted the most lucrative possible, according to Butler.

Dick Oram, alternative crops co-ordinator with the Department of Natural Resources, is a driving force behind plans to develop the local cranberry industry. Every cranberry plug planted in the province comes from the complex of greenhouses in the Wooddale

Bill Butler surveys the broad expanse of land he hopes will diversify his business. By this weekend, he hopes to have more than 12 acres of cranberries planted.

Butler has been harvesting peat at the site since the early 1980s. Hi-Point Industries sells the peat to soak up oil and other fuel spills. Cranberries are a good reclamation plan for peat bogs that have been depleted the most lucrative possible, according to Butler.

He has big plans for cranberries. Hopefully, it will be 50 per cent of our business at least, Butler says.

There could be as many as 50 acres of cranberry fields on the site in a few years, if everything goes according to plan.

Butler is one of 10 farmers involved in a project aimed at commercializing the province's fledgling cranberry industry.

The $5.8-million initiative will see 120 acres planted.

Federal and provincial taxpayers are providing 90 per cent of the costs; the farmers, the other 10 per cent. It's all part of an ambitious plan to create a new industry in a province not known for agriculture.

Following more than a decade of research and development work, provincial officials are confident the plan can work.

We've got the land base, we've got the water, we've got the sand, we've got all the tools to have an industry that can not just feed Newfoundlanders, but can feed the world, says Dick Oram, alternative crops co-ordinator with the Department of Natural Resources.

And if we can get a share of that, a small share of that, it can be a big industry.

The genesis of the province's cranberry industry dates back more than a decade, to 1997.

The government wanted to diversify, and looked at a number of new crops.

The chances of success looked strongest with cranberries, says Dick Oram, alternative crops co-ordinator with the Department of Natural Resources.

Early on, the government made a key decision, says Oram.

Instead of importing vines, the province obtained genetically fingerprinted tissue-cultured material from the U.S.

The advantage? "You know you've got clean material," he says - no insects, no disease.

In 1999, work began on the first phase of 20 acres, using seven different varieties of cranberries at four different sites.

In 2002, the project expanded to another dozen acres.

There was no fruit produced up to that point.

The years following had their issues, Oram acknowledges.

"Let's face it - we had partners engaged that didn't know if this was pie in the sky, or a real possibility," Oram says.

But around 2005 or 2006, "we knew we were on to something."

How?

They overcame the fear of Newfoundland's short growing season, Oram says.

The experts were telling them to stick with early varieties. But some of the best producers were late. "By 2006, we got enough fruit to see, yes, God, they will mature."

That's when the province decided to go commercial with cranberry production, according to Oram.

(Natural Resources Minister Kathy Dunderdale was not available for an interview, according to her officials.)

In 2007, the feds and province teamed up for a $2-million project with the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture.

The cash was targeted at developing new acreage, a site selection analysis for the province, and a report on future commercial development.

The next year, the province announced a $2.95-million cranberry industry development program.

That program provides farmers with $15,000 for each acre they plant, up to a maximum of 10 acres per year.

The overall costs of developing an acre can be upwards of $35,000.

This year, Oram says, roughly 25 acres have been planted under that program.

Around the same time that program was launched, the Grand Falls-Windsor mill closed.

A pot of ACOA cash from a community adjustment fund became available to the town.

ACOA provided $3 million for cranberry development, the province, $2.2 million, and farmers another $580,000.

The ongoing project - administered by the Grand Falls-Windsor town council - will see 120 acres developed.

And it has made central Newfoundland the epicentre of current efforts to develop the province's cranberry industry.

° ° °

Fabian Power is one of those 10 farmers.

He is a contractor and owns a hardware store in Botwood.

Power says he first expressed an interest in cranberry farming a few years ago, after speaking with the provincial federation of agriculture.

He then talked to Oram, and made up his mind to proceed.

"Government money was wonderful ... but even if it wasn't there, I was going ahead," Power says.

He currently has a total of 25 acres in development, and hopes to get 7-1/2 acres planted this year.

Ten people were working on site all winter.

The weather hasn't been kind so far this year, but Power is non-plussed.

"At the end of the day, we will overcome," Power says.

Mike Pinsent is the town manager of Grand Falls-Windsor, which is administering the overall $5.8-million cranberry development project.

He says the 10 farmers are co-operating and learning from each other.

"They don't even look at each other as competing; they look at themselves as helping to build the same industry," Pinsent says.

Industry proponents are looking at the long game.

The nature of cranberry growing makes that necessary.

It takes three or more years from planting to a significant output of first fruit. But those acres will then produce for decades, even a century.

In 2008, the province produced roughly 386,000 pounds of fruit.

Most of that was processed at Indian Bay Frozen Foods in Bonavista North.

And that is the holy grail of the cranberry industry - processing.

The farms themselves provide employment, but not for many people. Processing is where the jobs are.

Oram says it's a "good question" what the critical mass is to make processing viable.

For industry giant Ocean Spray to operate a full-blown facility, he says, the window would be 40 million pounds.

But for a smaller-scale operator employing a couple of dozen people 365 days a year, the number would be closer to the range of five million pounds.

Newfoundland won't get to that level until 250 to 300 acres are in full production.

"But that, to me, is not that far away now," Oram says. "Ten years ago it was a long ways away."

There are currently 62 planted acres in Newfoundland. That number will more than double this year alone, Oram says.

In the interim, it will be the farmer's choice to determine where to sell the fruit.

Selling to Ocean Spray is among the options.

And the Indian Bay facility can currently handle up to three million pounds of fruit, Oram says.

"What we want, and what the town of Grand Falls wants, is to find a partner that is willing to take fruit and market it, and then hopefully most of these guys will come on board."

Oram says the fledgling Newfoundland cranberry industry offers something that other agricultural initiatives in the province can't - the opportunity to export.

Except for fur and blueberries, the agriculture industry is focused on internal markets.

That restricts potential customers.

Local potato farmers, for example, can't compete with P.E.I. product outside the province.

But cranberries can be competitive in export markets, meaning potential consumers are anywhere in the world.

Pinsent is "pretty bullish" on industry opportunities.

"What our hope is, is that once we get that critical mass, we'll be shipping out finished product," he says.

° ° °

Dick Oram is in the provincial tree nursery, a relatively short drive from Bishop's Falls.

Every cranberry plug planted in Newfoundland comes from this complex of greenhouses.

Industry advocates say Newfoundland and Labrador has vast expanses of undeveloped land suitable for cranberries.

Current producing regions like Massachusetts are being squeezed by urban encroachment onto farmland.

Suitable undeveloped sites like those in Newfoundland are a "luxury," Oram says.

There are currently up to 700 acres designed at the 10 sites in the Grand Falls-Windsor project alone.

That means lots of room for expansion.

It's a bit of a leap of faith. But it's a leap that Oram thinks is worth taking.

"You can't go the other way with it; you can't compete with P.E.I. and New Brunswick and Maine on potatoes," he says.

"Cranberries can be like potatoes (are) to P.E.I."

rantle@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Hi-Point Industries, Department of Natural Resources, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture Grand Falls-Windsor town council Indian Bay Frozen Foods

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, U.S., Botwood Bonavista North Indian Bay Grand Falls Massachusetts New Brunswick Maine

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  • kay
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    A very intriguing story; its good to see agriculture start to grow here (pardon the pun) its progress that doesn't hurt anybody either