by Emily Leeson
The cranberry harvest has wrapped up and Terra Beata Farms has fared much better than others in the industry. After 13 days in a row of harvesting, the Ernst family brought in more than 300,000 pounds of cranberries off their bogs on Heckmans Island in Nova Scotia’s Lunenburg County. That’s a higher yield than average.
However, many cranberry producers elsewhere in Eastern Canada felt the effects of a dry summer.
“In Quebec, their cranberry yield was down substantially, and in New Brunswick, it was down a fair amount,” said Evelyn Ernst, who owns and operates Terra Beata Farms with her husband David.
As both a grower and processor of cranberries, Terra Beata usually purchases most of the cranberries produced by New Brunswick growers. The 12 acres they have under production on Heckmans Island yields only a fraction of the five million pounds of fruit the company processes each year.
In order to keep up with the demand for their frozen cranberry exports and their growing retail product business, Terra Beata usually buys cranberries from about 10 other producers in the region.
However, this year’s lower yields have meant some of the product they’d usually buy is headed elsewhere. When large cranberry processors in Quebec saw early signs of a smaller harvest, a deal was struck for half of the New Brunswick cranberries to head to Terra Beata and the other half to Quebec.
The slim Maritime harvest wasn’t isolated to New Brunswick. Normally, Terra Beata can count on cranberries from a few P.E.I. growers as well. That wasn’t the case this year. “One had such a poor yield this year that he didn’t even bother to harvest,” said Ernst.
On the other hand, the quality of the cranberries from the Terra Beata farm is especially good this year. “I think we were very fortunate,” said Ernst. “We must have got the right amount of rain at the right point. We got really good size on our fruit.”
Terra Beata planned for a smaller shipment of New Brunswick cranberries this year, which means their frozen cranberry exports will be down slightly. However, their retail production won’t be affected, said Ernst.
The Ernst family has been in the cranberry business since 1998 when they purchased an undeveloped peat bog and turned it into a cranberry farm. The business now includes a processing facility where they make cranberry juices, preserves, and dried fruit, and pack frozen berries. In fact, 80 percent of their sales are in frozen cranberries destined for the export market. Their processing facility now employees 25 full-time, year-round employees.
When it comes to the cranberry harvest, though, that’s purely family business. “The outdoor farming work is done by myself and my husband and our kids,” said Ernst.
The Ernst family grows Stevens cranberries, which they find is the largest and highest-yielding variety suitable for the Maritime climate. By mid-fall, the ripe cranberries are red and ready for harvest. Prior to their commercial harvest, the Ernsts offer a U-pick. This year, they sold approximately 1,000 pounds of cranberries to visitors willing to pick their own before the fields were flooded.
The real work began in late October. After the fields are flooded, water wheel-style harvesters are driven through the bog, agitating the cranberry plants so the berries loosen and float to the water’s surface.
The Ernst family’s two harvesters must be driven by hand and the older family members take turns with this task. “It’s a beast of a thing and you don’t want to be doing that all day,” said Ernst with a laugh.
Once the cranberries are floating, they are corralled and pumped up into a waiting truck. From there, the cranberries are immediately shipped to a receiving station in Richibucto, N.B., where they undergo their first cleaning. Using that centralized option for the initial cleaning makes sense for Terra Beata and others in the industry.
“The harvest season is only spread out across six weeks,” said Ernst. “In those six weeks, all the farms in the region are going to be harvesting their cranberries and everybody needs to get them run quickly through the cleaner. It just makes the most sense to do all that in one location.”
When the cranberries are returned to Heckmans Island, they are cleaned again and processed into different products. While 80 percent of the cranberries are frozen and exported to countries such as New Zealand, Israel, China, and Taiwan, the rest are bound for grocery shelves closer to home.
Terra Beata retail products are available in all the major grocery stores in Atlantic Canada. And, in the last year, the company has expanded its presence across Canada. Their pure cranberry juice and dried cranberries products are now available coast-to-coast through the Your Independent Grocer stores. They also recently put together a deal to have their cranberry sauce in Costco stores.
“We’re always looking to increase our sales and value-added products,” said Ernst. “The frozen product market has very narrow margins and we can build a lot better business with the retail products.”
She said coming up with those products is a particularly enjoyable part of the business for her. “It’s a chance to be creative because I’m always looking for new ways for people to enjoy cranberries.” This year, she hopes the cranberry salsa they’ve added to the lineup will take off.
Ernst said she’s confident that there’s still room in the market to expand and try new things. “Canadians are still buying cranberry products that are produced in the U.S.,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is replace some of those imports and grow our market share with Canadian products.”
by Emily Leeson