Oxford-based company celebrating its 50th birthday
OXFORD, N.S. – Nova Scotia had a bumper blueberry crop in 1967 when John Bragg decided to take a leap into the processing business establishing Oxford Frozen Foods.
In 1968, the year he opened his blueberry processing facility, the crop collapsed.
It could have been the end of the story, but as he has time and time again Bragg took the risk and persevered. With the support of government, the community and his workers, Oxford Frozen Foods has grown and prospered as one of the largest employers in Cumberland County, if not northern Nova Scotia.
“We literally started in a hayfield in Oxford in 1968,” he said. “I was a very young blueberry farmer at the time so I decided to be the master of my own destiny. I borrowed money from the province, I was 28 and had no idea what I was doing, but I had the entrepreneurial spirit and said I was going to do the best I can.”
From those simple beginnings, Bragg’s company has grown to become the world’s largest supplier of frozen wild blueberries and Canada’s premiere processor of frozen carrot products. It has also diversified into diced onions and frozen rutabaga, onion rings, cheese sticks and battered vegetables.
“Today we have more than 500 people here as well as the factory in Maine and a factory in New Brunswick. We also have a lot of people in our farm operation,” Bragg said.
Similar to this year, the blueberry crop in 1968 was hit hard by June frost. It wiped out most of the blueberries in Nova Scotia and left a 28-year-old Bragg wondering what his future would be. However, the banks gave him a second chance and the business took off from there.
Blueberries yields back then were about 40 million tonnes; today they’re approximately 200 million.
Looking back at Oxford’s success, Bragg said his employees have played a huge role, while the company always been “very innovative.”
As owner, his family has been dedicated to keeping the operation going.
“It has been our life, even though there have been lots of ups and downs and tough times,” Bragg said. “There have been a lot of good times too.”
Bragg has been committed to Oxford and rural Nova Scotia from the start, something he continues to do. He said his employees live in rural Nova Scotia and enjoy a good quality of life. Housing is affordable and the rural lifestyle is second to none.
“That standard of living is not bad,” he said. “The rural life, some people love it and some people don’t, but to enjoy the rural life we need jobs. We need policies that encourage companies like this. You don’t grow these industries without government support of some kind. That doesn’t mean handouts, but an appreciation of the industries. Every department in government can help a little bit.”
He understands the need to feed the province’s economic engine in Halifax, but he said it’s important for government and policy makers to realize rural jobs are just as good urban ones.
While there are probably a few things he could’ve done differently if he could turn the clock back to 1968, Bragg said his company has enjoyed tremendous success.
“We’ve built this business, with good steady jobs and we’re selling our product around the world,” he said. “It’s a first-class business and we’ve played a role in the development of some great people. They’re as sophisticated as others around the world when it comes to technology. We have tremendous employees from the factory floor to the top. They are dedicated and committed to making the business work. Every single job here is important.”
Bragg said the future of Oxford Frozen Foods is strong with a good solid base in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine. He also understands the industry if facing challenges, maybe its biggest challenge in a half century.
Despite this, he remains optimistic it’s going to get better.
“We’ve been through these cycles before,” he said. “Mother Nature came along and gave us three big crops, three years in a row. Now we’ve had a disastrous frost. We should have had it two years ago in the middle of those big crops.”
Prices are down, he said, but consumption is growing. He said the industry, including Oxford Frozen Foods, is working hard to open new markets in places like China.
“I see it turning around,” he said. “I see prices being better this year for the farmer.”