The National Farmers Union in New Brunswick condemns the Government of New Brunswick’s lack of interest and support of wild blueberry producers in the face of this year’s low prices and market access crisis. Many government staff, including the Assistant Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries continue to applaud the season saying that it has been successful overall despite some growing pains.
This reaction of indifference is unacceptable and even insulting to many producers on the ground. Many found themselves without a buyer for their berries, or limited to daily harvesting maximums that meant berries stayed in the field, as well as forced to accept the low prices offered by processors. Some have said they will not even make enough this year to pay the interest in their loans, others are already looking at selling their lands given the even lower price forecast for the next 2 – 3 years.
These results are exactly those was were predicted three years ago by the NFU-NB and the North East Wild Blueberry Growers Association, in this excerpt from a commentary written by former NFU-NB president Jean-Eudes Chiasson in September 2013.
“If blueberry producers in northeastern NB are concerned by the arrival of a processing plant in their area, it is not the plant per se that concerns them, because such a processing plant would give them access to a nearby market, which would be beneficial to them. Rather, the concern is the transfer to Oxford Foods of a large tract of land well suited for growing blueberries.
By taking control of such lands, this producer-processor – which boasts about being the largest producer of wild blueberries in the world – could meet most of its own needs for blueberries and thus create a market surplus, which would lower prices considerably and allow it to supply itself at below production costs for their remaining blueberry needs.
Over time, smaller producers may be shut down and land prices or rental leases of lands well-suited to blueberry culture in this region of the province, considerably reduced. Afterwards, these lands would become available to be taken over at lost cost by the processing plant or an affiliated producer.”
The startling challenge is that these low prices and decreased land values were only anticipated further down the road when the 15,600 acres of Crown Land that Oxford Frozen Foods, of Nova Scotia, was given were in full production. It has only been three years and the situation has already become so desperate for some producers that they are looking to sell now before land values get worse.
After last week’s announcement in the NB Economic Growth Plan to pursue blueberry development as a growth opportunity, even going so far to mention that ‘This opportunity requires a strong eco-system which includes smaller local producers being given opportunity to fully participate.’ Government staff seem to have no new road map in place to address rising challenges like low prices, fairer compensation for producers, and how exactly smaller producers will still be in production next season if they are unable to make payments this year. The current plan of action is to continue to pursue the 2013 – 2018 Sector Strategy – the same development document that has contributed to the current crisis.
One solution that has been proposed by the Northeast Blueberry Growers Association is a Regional Marketing Board that would allow blueberry producers in the Northeast of the province to collectively negotiate prices with processors. This application has been underway for three years, including a plebiscite vote in May. Under the Natural Products Act this vote is not binding but rather to inform the decision. Producers would like the results of the vote to be released publically and for a decision to be reached quickly. Without any recourse for finding fairer prices for their product many may be out of business by next season.
NFU-NB president, Ted Wiggans proposes an additional solution, “In light of the difficulties the blueberry industry is facing in terms of pricing, vertical integration and internal dissension amongst producers the whole industry is in need of a thorough and in-depth review of how they are organized and represent themselves. The government supported consolidation of the industry has led to a serious market imbalance that if let to its own devices will force out the smaller producers in the next few years.”
These are both longer term solutions that will require lots of planning, preparation and implementation to be effective. The situation is urgent and farmers have bills to pay now and that issue is something that needs to be addressed. Without urgent action, the government’s new commitment the PEOPLE of NB by growing our workforce by significantly growing the number of new and returning New Brunswickers settling here, will be simply unattainable in the blueberry sector.
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The National Farmers Union in NB is one of two general farm organizations representing New Brunswick farm families in all agricultural commodities. NFU members believe that the problems facing farmers are common problems, and that farmers producing diverse products must work together to advance effective solutions. The NFU works toward the development of economic and social policies that will maintain the family farm as the primary food-producing unit.
Ted Wiggans, NFU-NB president, 506 366 3410
Amanda Wildeman, NFU-NB executive director (506) 260-0087