Tracadie – InvestNB and Oxford Frozen Foods, a multinational corporation based in Nova Scotia, have forged a deal that is not sitting well with blueberry growers and locals in New Brunswick’s northeast peninsula.
Oxford Frozen Foods, the world’s largest supplier of wild blueberries, plans to develop a crop of wild blueberries in between the Tabusintac and Tracadie Rivers near St-Sauveur in Gloucester County after receiving government approval to swap their private land for 15,712 acres of Crown forest land.
Invest NB, a provincial Crown corporation, has agreed to provide Oxford Frozen Foods a $37.5 million interest-bearing repayable loan to construct a blueberry processing plant. The company is promising to create 300 jobs and invest $184 million in the plant. Construction of the plant is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2014.
Jean Maurice Landry, president of the Northeast Association of Wild Blueberry Growers, is concerned that wild berry growers like himself are being kept in the dark about the development.
Representatives from different community organizations and municipalities across Gloucester County are trying to find out basic information about the project like the exact location of the planned development and the name of the company that is logging the area and clearing the land for the crops.
A heavy air of frustration was felt at a public meeting, organized by Danny Comeau, Chair of the Local Services District, in St. Sauver on February 17. Truck loads of logs are going through the communities of Pont-Lafrance, St-Isidore, Alderwood and St-Sauveur, but no one knows who is cutting the logs and where they are going.
“We know little about the nature and working conditions of these 300 jobs and what the company will gain versus what it will invest here,” says Landry.
Premier David Alward, Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud and Oxford Frozen Foods founder and CEO John Bragg announced the deal on October 31 in Tracadie-Sheila. “Our government is committed to working with strong partners like Oxford Frozen Foods Ltd. to grow the blueberry sector throughout our province and achieve the vision outlined in the recently announced New Brunswick Wild Blueberry Sector Strategy,” said Premier Alward.
Oxford Frozen Foods is the world’s largest grower and processor of wild blueberries with manufacturing facilities in the Maritimes and the U.S. The company has been present in the wild blueberry industry in the Acadian Peninsula since 1968.
According to Landry, “If Oxford can control the production of blueberries on an additional 15,712 acres of land, they will be able to control the price of blueberries and eventually they will shut out local competitors.”
Oxford Frozen Foods’ two main CEOs, John L. Bragg and David Hoffman, hold corporate executive positions with other companies in the province. Bragg owns Bragg Lumber Company and Hoffman is CEO of Shaw Group. Shaw Group has a division that produces wood material.
Landry is concerned about the lack of oversight from different government departments with this new deal.
“It not clear to us how Oxford will manage the land or maintain preservation zones to protect rivers or wildlife habitat. Diverse users are being shut out with this plan and rules and regulations that used to protect our public lands will no longer apply on what could become Oxford’s private blueberry patch,” says Landry.
Deforestation, lack of transparency on the part of the provincial government, and fewer opportunities for local economic initiatives and employment are only some of the concerns raised by people in the Acadian Peninsula with this deal.
The imposed blueberry plan in northern New Brunswick is being likened to the foisted forestry and shale gas plans of the Alward government that involve public land being developed and privatized without any public consultation or local consent.
Randy LeBouthillier lives in Tracadie where he is a musician and grassroots activist. He studied International Development and Environmental Studies at the University of Ottawa.