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Premier Peckford’s pickle palace

The Story

It was supposed to be a miracle technology that would grow Newfoundland's economy into prosperity; an enormous space-age greenhouse with cucumbers sprouting to full size in only six days. When Premier Brian Peckford first saw the hydroponic technology he exclaimed: "Holy smokes -- let Newfoundland be first in something!" But, as we see in this television clip, the dream -- fuelled by more than $13 million in taxpayers' money -- seems to be dying on the vine. Construction took longer than expected. Then cucumbers from outside Newfoundland flooded the market so greenhouse operator Philip Sprung had to sell his scientific marvels for half the cost of production. He still can't sell all the cucumbers, so cows are munching the surplus. The fate of the enterprise in Mount Pearl looks grim, but Peckford is standing firm in the face of naysayers. "There'll be cucumbers over all kinds of people's faces," he declares.

Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: July 25, 1988
Guests: Brian Peckford, Philip Sprung
Commentator: Rex Murphy
Host: Bill Cameron
Reporter: Denise Rudnicki
Duration: 7:49

Did You know?

• The joint venture between the Newfoundland government and Sprung Enviroponics started in 1987 and ended disastrously in 1989. The province pulled the plug after repeated injections of emergency funds. Its total investment topped $22 million -- double the original contribution. Enviroponics then declared bankruptcy and Newfoundland sold the facility to another company for $1.

• A total of about 800,000 cucumbers was produced. The cost to taxpayers per cucumber was $27.50, compared to 50 cents for cucumbers produced out of province and sold in Newfoundland grocery stores.

• The project really started to fall apart in January 1989 when Charles Power, the agriculture minister responsible for the greenhouse, resigned from Conservative Premier Brian Peckford's cabinet. He called the project "off the rails" and "out of control."

• Five months after this clip aired, all the plants in the greenhouse mysteriously died. Sprung claimed sabotage and offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the saboteur's arrest. But Power called the sabotage story nonsense.

• The hydroponic greenhouse project has become a symbol of foolish government spending. In 2001, Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick wrote: "As scams to rake in government money went, it was the most embarrassing in Canadian history."

• After a decade in office, Peckford announced his retirement from politics in 1989 as the cucumber boondoggle was still unfolding.

• The Liberal government elected in Newfoundland after Peckford's retirement appointed a royal commission to probe the cucumber affair. The resulting report called the investment "an improper expenditure of public funds." Government should leave such enterprises, the report said, to "those who have the required expertise and the appropriate capital."

• The company that bought the bankrupt greenhouse for $1 soon shut it down, complaining that it cost $60,000 a week just to power its huge grow lights. Since then it has hosted a number of enterprises including a driving range.

• Philip Sprung reportedly put $4 million of his own money into the cucumber venture. After it failed, Sprung and his daughter Dawn moved back to Calgary where the family has several businesses.

• Although Newfoundland has endured more than its share of cucumber jokes, every province has had a notorious boondoggle, scandal or white elephant. Some examples:
- British Columbia: a fleet of three Fast Ferries commissioned by Glen Clark's NDP government cost $454 million -- $244 million over budget. Only two of the ferries were put into service and were quickly deemed unusable by the B.C. Ferry Corporation in 2003.
- Alberta: in 1995 an ethics commission ruled that Premier Ralph Klein had displayed "poor judgment," but had not breached ethical guidelines, when he publicly promoted a company in which his wife held shares.
- Manitoba: in the 1995 election, Conservative party officials under Premier Gary Filmon spent party funds bankrolling independent native candidates in hopes of splitting the NDP vote in native-dominated ridings.
- Ontario: Liberal fundraiser Patti Starr went to jail in 1989 for lying to obtain a grant for a charity where she once worked. Starr had previously been fined for making contributions to Liberal candidates from the charity's coffers.
- Quebec: Mirabel airport, which was built in 1975 at a cost of $500 million, is barely used today because airlines claim it is too far from Montreal to be convenient.
- Nova Scotia: Premier John Buchanan's government was plagued by patronage scandals and accusations that he used a secret party fund to pay his debts. Buchanan was never charged and he left office to take a Senate seat in 1990.
- Prince Edward Island: in 1996, the new government of Conservative Premier Pat Binns took seasonal jobs away from Liberals and gave them to Conservatives. The ex-workers were later awarded $750,000 by the province's human rights commission.


Scandals, Boondoggles and White Elephants more