When cranberry farmers in Newfoundland hear their ventures compared with the Sprung Greenhouse flop they cringe, not because they fear the same fate but because they think such opinions are unenlightened and uninformed.
They might be right.
Cranberry farming might be relatively new to Newfoundland, but cranberries are not and neither is farming. The merging of the two, agricultural experts and cranberry farmers contend, are a natural fit for the sour cranberry to be as sweet a success in Newfoundland as it is elsewhere in North America.
"Newfoundland has extensive peat bogs and mounted peat bogs throughout (its) country and they actually have as part of their natural vegetation cranberries both large- and small-sized," said Ben Gilmore, owner of a successful 100-acre cranberry farm in Massachusetts (the second largest cranberry growing state in the U.S.) "They are indigenous to Newfoundland and given the abundance of natural settings and water resources, Newfoundland is a natural cranberry growing area."
With 30 years in the business, Mr. Gilmore knows the risks involved in cranberry production.
"There are risks in proper site selection, also as is the case with any kind of agriculture one is always at the whims of nature; you have to deal with too much rain to little rain, sunshine, no sunshine, cold weather - all those factors affect yield and yield affects success in terms of being able to harvest enough fruits to maintain the farm," said Mr. Gilmore.
"Markets are also a challenge," he said. "Cranberries are no different than other agricultural commodities. There are years and time when the prices come in substantially high and other times as is right now in certain sectors of the industry where the price is quite low."
Cranberries he said may even be higher-risk than other commodities.
"It is a high risk venture, it is a high value crop that has some very unique characteristics in terms of pest pressure and other disease pressures that make it somewhat of a higher risk crop compared to other types of crops and because this is a perennial crop."
Because the original plants last many years, the mistakes growers make now they are going to see next year and the year after, unlike annual crops he explained, such as corn and wheat where you can just start over again with new plant material the next year.
The biggest challenge Newfoundland farmers have to overcome he believes is grower expertise.
"Because there aren't many of us who grow cranberries word-wide, it's sort of a quiet artform, I guess, and it will take some time for a transfer of knowledge to occur so that the growers will feel comfortable and also have the expertise to become high producing growers, there are some already."
Mr. Gilmore also believes the dividends are worth overcoming the risks involved in cranberry cultivation and harvest. His farm now supplies 1.5 million pounds of cranberries annually to Ocean Spray, a farming co-operative and brand, which is also the leading producer of cranberry juice products in North America.
Now a designer of cranberry farms, Mr. Gilmore has been working as primary designer with Exploits Engineering in the development of the ten farms in central Newfoundland. He believes it will be only a matter of time before Newfoundland is known for its cranberries and central Newfoundland the hub of its sustaining industry.
"Having been involved with the growers building those bogs and the design company designing those bogs there is no question there will be a successful industry there, probably in the size of many hundreds to a thousand acres there, I think there is a real potential and I think that potential will be realized. "
Overseeing farm finance
Development is not cheap.
It costs about $35,000 an acre to have a cranberry farm developed complete with irrigation, sand and ready to put plants in.
In central Newfoundland, cranberry farm production has secured large investments of government funding but it has also involved investment from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and personal upfront investment of 10 per cent from the farmers themselves.
Industry Trade and Rural Development supplied $1,020,000. The Provincial Department of Natural Resources gave out $1,200,000. ACOA not only matched their combined total but raised the offerings by $1 million, investing $3,000,000. Farmers were responsible for $580,000.
The $5.8 million provided over a two-year period for the development is happening under the watchful eye of the town's Cranberry Project Administrator, Lloyd Warford.
"My job is to make sure all of the invoices match up at the ends of the day," he said. He also makes sure the farm development is proceeding on time and is a frequent visitor to each location talking with the farm owners and contractors about any challenges they might be facing.
One of the two sites not yet in development has to find a new access route, the option for a road off of the highway was rejected. At the other the farmer made some changes at the other site that necessitated more surveying and another engineer consultation. An estimated two weeks delay.
Obstacles to development in agriculture and farming are not a foreign concept to Mr. Warford. He grew up on his father's farm in Pleasantview and after 11 years with FPI plant in Triton, four as cost analyst, he went on to study and find work in agricultural accounting. He began work with Newfoundland Farm Products Ltd. in 1972, then for the next 20 years managed the Vegetable Marketing Association in Bishop's Falls, which became the Central Vegetable Products Co-op.
"We're just in the early stages right now and most of the farms, like the ones that started recently have maybe 4 acres to about 10 or 12 acres developed so far," he said. "Some of them hope to have a minimum of 6 acres to a maximum of 24 acres ready for planting this coming spring and summer."
There is 120 acres being developed. The goal is to develop 500 acres over five years and to ultimately produce enough cranberries with other farms on the island already in production, to support the development of a processing plant. Until then the farms will continue expansion anywhere from 30 to 100 acres.
After this stage of development more investment will be required.
"If we can acquire some more government funding to keep the project moving at the pace it is now then I expect we would probably see a processing facility here within five to ten years," said Mr. Warford. "It is very expensive to get into, but once you get into it you have got a piece of property that will produce fruit for 50-100 years."
The demand for cranberries, isn't slowing down.
"The demand is increasing 5 or 6 percent every year," he said. "Ocean Spray alone estimate they will need about 5,000 additional acres over the next few years to meet their demand, with Europe being the biggest market."
The current market price has fluctuated between 50 and 60 cents per pound, since a bumper crop cut the market price in half the year before last.
See Thursday's edition of the Advertiser for more on this story.