N.L. cranberry industry seeks future with secondary processing

Province looking at another go-around on berry farm development

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on August 14, 2014
Lloyd Warford, cranberry initiative project administrator for Grand Falls-Windsor, was happy to be involved in the wet harvest of cranberries on local farms in fall 2013. — Photos by Krysta Carroll/The Advertiser

The number of farms involved in the cranberry industry in Newfoundland and Labrador has grown significantly over the last 20 years — spurred by provincial and federal funding programs for new farms and expansions.

And the province is currently working on another go-around for cranberry farm funding.

Cranberry acreage has moved from about 45 to 50 acres before the completed programs, to more than 250 acres today, operating at various levels of production.

Farmers say this year is poised for a strong yield from the existing crops, with an extra kick from a sunny July, but their industry has yet to get to where it needs to be for long-term success.

According to those familiar, a farm needs to be producing from around 40 acres to be self-sustaining. As an industry, there is no magic number, but those who spoke with The Telegram said they expect sustainability will come with about 500 acres in production overall — when there is the potential for large-scale secondary processing.

“We’re over halfway there,” said Fabian Power, a cranberry farmer and president of the Cranberry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“It’s just staying on track, knowing what you’ve got to do and working towards it.”

There were three producing cranberry farms on the island in the early 1990s, he said. The success of those farms, with lessons learned, drew government interest in bringing more on stream.

In 1996, the province established five cranberry farming pilot sites and moved into gathering plant plugs and vines at a provincial nursery.

In 2008, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced a five-year Cranberry Industry Development Program (CIDP), providing financial assistance grants to cranberry farmers, covering 50 per cent of the cost of developing each acre of new cranberry land.

With as much as a year of prep work before cranberry plants go into the ground, then another three years to an actual crop, the fruits of the provincial investment are only now starting to be seen, Power said, before encouraging the idea of another round of berry farm funding.

“What is needed is we definitely need the program in place to give us the push to get towards this secondary processing. And you know, when I say a program, a program’s so much more than financial assistance,” he said, noting education and conveyance of best-practices as an important piece.

“With any luck, the people involved in this and the people who make the decisions will see the value of the industry.”

A new cranberry program from the province might simply be a way of trying again to get the same dollar out the door. As noted by the auditor general in a report published in January 2014, the plan for the provincial CIDP was to see enough uptake to cost the public coffers about $12 million overall.

“Some of the farmers had already developed their farms to the extent that they didn’t want to develop them any further,” said Keith Dearing, an assistant deputy minister in the province’s Department of Natural Resources, responsible for agrifoods, in a House of Assembly public accounts committee meeting earlier this summer.

There was also some competition with a federal funding program, covering as much as 90 per cent of costs in comparison to the province’s 50.

“The Department of Natural Resources had allocated more than $700,000 to develop the industry through the Cranberry Industry Development Program and is working toward a new program that will support further growth in the cranberry industry to help it become commercialized,” said Minister Derrick Dalley, in a statement provided in response to questions Wednesday.

According to information issued by the federal government in March, Canadian commercial production of cranberries has grown 46 per cent since 2009, from 86,776 metric tonnes to 126,963 metric tonnes in 2012. Newfoundland and Labrador accounted for 159 metric tonnes of that total.