AUGUSTA — Gov. Angus S. King announced plans for a major expansion of the fledgling cranberry industry in Washington County on Thursday, a plan that could make Maine one of the major cranberry-producing states in the country.
Cherryfield Frozen Foods, a division of Oxford Frozen Foods of Oxford, Nova Scotia, plans to develop 900 acres of cranberry bogs over the next 11 years. The new acreage would expand the current 70 acres of cranberry bogs in Maine by more than tenfold. And it would represent about 3 percent of all cranberry bogs in the world.
King said the company’s investment could reach from $45 million to $50 million.
King said the cranberry operation, assuming the company can obtain all needed permits, would employ 75 people full time and about 200 seasonal workers. In addition, about 100 part-time workers would be involved in construction, which would span several years.
Cherryfield Foods, a major blueberry producer, employs about 100 people full time and about 1,200 workers on a seasonal basis.
The company plans to make use of its blueberry processing equipment to process cranberries, which are harvested a month later than blueberries. The berries will be quick-frozen at the Cherryfield plant for use by large manufacturers and juice concentrators.
Eventually, Cherryfield Foods plans to make its own cranberry juice and pack fresh berries for retail sale.
King said he will meet with officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency in coming weeks to discuss Cherryfield Foods’ proposal to get wetland development permits for 835 acres. The company already has received permits for 65 acres.
“This would be the beginnings of a critical mass for a cranberry industry in Maine,” said King. “In one stroke, this put us on the map in terms of cranberry production.
“I’m just delighted that it’s Washington County. I suspect it’s the single largest commercial development in Washington County since construction of the Woodland mill [the Georgia-Pacific Corp. paper mill, built for $25 million in 1964].”
Asked if he was concerned that the parent firm of Cherryfield Foods was based in Canada, King said, “I suppose the profits may leave, but if somebody wants to spend 45 [million] to 50 million dollars here and hire Maine people, we’re in favor of it. We’re in favor of `inward investment.”‘
King said there are about 27,000 acres of cranberry bogs worldwide, and cranberry growing is one of the most productive industries per acre there is.
The cranberry project would involve:
Township 18 — 65 acres at Brewster Corner. The company already has received approval to begin construction on this project this spring, and expects to process its first berries from the bog within two years.
Township 18 — 94 acres at Pretty Barrens.
Township 24 — 410 acres at Hedley Lakes.
Township 24 — 153 acres at Pretty Pond.
Township 24 — 134 acres at Allen’s Heath.
Township 25 — 546 acres at Crossroads.
The total area is slightly more than 1,400 acres, but only 60 to 65 percent will be cranberry beds with the rest of the land used for storage ponds for water and dikes and ditches. About 1,300 acres of upland will be converted to wetlands for cranberry bogs or storage ponds.
Cranberries are native to Maine and the state had a thriving cranberry industry in the 1930s.
“We have the perfect climate for cranberries,” said Agriculture Commissioner Edward McLaughlin. “We can grow the best cranberries I’ve ever seen.”
Not all Washington County residents were pleased with Thursday’s announcement. Nancy Oden, an environmental activist from Jonesboro, said that many residents are concerned about the expansion because of Cherryfield Foods’ use of pesticides. One of the pesticides used is azinphos-methyl, a nerve gas that is sold under the labels of Guthion or Sniper, and can cause symptoms similar to the Gulf War Syndrome, she said.
In describing its plans, Cherryfield Foods says in its brochure, “The development of the Cherryfield cranberry business is based upon the expectation and belief that the demand for cranberries will remain strong and continue to outstrip supply.”
Sen. Vinton E. Cassidy, R-Calais, whose district encompasses the cranberry-bog area, was thrilled with the Cherryfield Foods plan.
“It’s super,” Cassidy said. “There’s been a movement there [in cranberries] in a small way. From what I understand, the market for cranberries is unlimited.
“I think it’s going to be tremendous for our area. Hopefully, we’ll see the spinoff of other things.”