New Brunswick

Blueberry growers protest low prices in Saint-Isidore

About 200 blueberry producers protested outside the Saint-Isidore office of MLA Denis Landry on Monday.

Growers feel forgotten since Oxford Foods opened a processing plant on the Acadian Peninsula

Growers poured out bins filled with locally-picked blueberries onto a tarp in front of the office of their MLA, Denis Landry, in protest of market conditions

Two hundred independent blueberry growers from across the Acadian Peninsula held a protest outside MLA Denis Landry's office in St Isidore Monday morning, voicing complaints over what they call a "monopoly" by a large Nova Scotia-owned company, and pouring bins of blueberry out onto a tarp covering the office's parking lot.

Jean-Maurice Landry, spokesperson for the outraged blueberry growers, speaks to MLA Denis Landry in front of a crowed of over 200 growers outside Denis Landry's office in Saint-Isidore (Bridget Yard/CBC)
Jean Maurice Landry, the spokesperson for the Northeast Wild Blueberry Growers Association calls the division of Crown lands by the New Brunswick government, and its cooperation with Oxford Frozen Foods "intimidation".

"The province has invested $40 million in that new plant, and the new plant will accommodate berries from Maine and other provinces, but won't take berries from other new buyers in the Peninsula," said Landry.

"The situation is made worse since Jasper Wyman, which has been buying berries here for decades, has decided to close all its buying stations in the area."

Landry believes there is a link between the closure and the growers' request for a marketing board to even the playing field.

 I see no immediate people willing to go into that venture.They see what's going on in the industry and they hate like hell to get involved - Vernon Losier, blueberry grower

Growers want marketing board
The association's members voted in a plebiscite in April. They are still waiting for the results from the Farm Product commission, now in the hands of the provincial government.

A child picks blueberries poured over the parking the parking lot of MLA Denis Landry's office in Saint-Isidore (Bridget Yard/CBC)
MLA and Minister of Justice, formerly Minister of Natural Resources, answered the growers' questions outside his office.

"They want to form a marketing board in the area," said Landry

"It's a complex file and from what I heard this morning, the outcome from the farm commission would be sometime next fall. We're not that far."

Landry also made clear to the protesters that while Oxford Frozen Foods and its new plant will bring some positive changes to the area, his government did not make the deal to trade Crown land to the company.

Since the deal, in which the New Brunswick government exchanged  6,285 hectares of Crown land for an equal amount of private land to allow construction of the new facility, Oxford Foods has established a $184-million blueberry processing plant on the Acadian Peninsula.

The plant can process more than 680,000 kilograms of fresh blueberries per day during the harvest.

"It was a done deal when we got there as a new government. The land that was transferred to this company, the new blueberry plant, this was one of the big issues. The plant was not strongly connected to the transfer of the land," said Landry.

"The big problem isn't that the plant was built, it's the fact that Jasper Wyman won't buy blueberries from the Acadian Peninsula, and Mr Bragg [the owner of Oxford] won't take any new clients. It's hard for me to tell him who to accept as a client"

Blueberry growers in the northeast are upset about low prices. (Bridget Yard/CBC)
Despite Landry's assurances that "two weeks from now, we'll see the pickers and the industry, and we'll see very happy people," longtime blueberry growers are tired of what they call "a perfect storm" for dissatisfaction.

"I'm on the verge of letting that go. I'm getting close to retirement, and I see no immediate people willing to go into that venture. They see what's going on in the industry and they hate like hell to get involved in this schmozzle that's been going on for three years," said Vernon Losier, a blueberry grower with land near Tracadie.

"We have too many big players involved. 25,000 acres is a lot of land and people are worried it's not worth it to keep their land, because the manufacturers will be self-sufficient."

Growers are also worried that prices are stagnating. Losier receives 50 cents per pound of blueberries, which he says isn't enough, and hasn't changed in the past three years.

The Northeast Wild Blueberry Growers Association vowed Monday to continue to push for a marketing board, and to take their concerns to Fredericton

With files from Bridget Yard