Oxford Frozen Foods’ home loan program helps keep workers in rural NS

OXFORD — Tom Shears wanted a house for his family.

This was eight years ago.

He was 36 years old.

His wife, Joy, was pregnant with their second child, and they were living in an apartment in Amherst.

“It was the down payment that we couldn’t get together,” Shears said in an interview.

“Just keeping up with all the day-to-day expenses makes it hard to save that kind of money.”

Meanwhile, Oxford had its own problem.

“Our elementary and our high school both needed to be replaced,” said Mayor Trish Stewart.

“With school board budgets the way they were and with a declining population of children, we were worried the board would close schools and bus our students out of the community.”

Shear’s employer, Oxford Frozen Foods, had an issue, too.

“The supply of labour is not as readily available in rural Cumberland County as it is in urban centres,” said Jordan Burkhardt, director of human resources for Oxford Frozen Foods.

“It comes down to retention.”

The sprawling Oxford Frozen Foods complex is the largest employer in Cumberland County. Six hundred people work at its Oxford site, sorting, freezing, shipping and packaging onions, carrots, blueberries and a handful of other vegetables.

Another 400 work for the company off-site.

Oxford Frozen Foods is the backbone of the old logging and farming town, with its quaint brick and mortar Main Street and its 1,200 souls.

But without a school, you lose residents. If you lose residents, you lose employees.

So if Shears wanted a house for his children, it was in the best interest of his employer and his town that he got one.

So began the Oxford Frozen Foods Housing Loan Agreement.

Eight years ago, the company began offering its employees forgivable loans equal to 20 per cent of the value of a property, up to a maximum of $20,000. That loan is written off at a rate of 10 per cent annually over 10 years. So if someone stays with the company for a decade, they don’t have to pay it back.

“If you can find someone who wants to live in a rural area and enjoys the local culture, then its easier to develop their skills than try to bring someone from outside the area,” said Burkhardt.

“We’re big believers in growing talent.”

Jobs at Oxford Frozen Foods start at $13 an hour and go up to $29 an hour for some skilled positions.

It competes for labour primarily with employers in Amherst and Springhill’s industrial parks, as well as with seasonal jobs and also Western Canada.

Burkhardt said the company can’t compete with Western Canadian wages but added that it can compete with employers for workers who want to stay in the area.

Shears started with the company loading trucks in his 20s, went to school, got a degree, was accepted into the company’ management training program and has worked in nearly every department at the Oxford Frozen Foods compound.

In 2007, he became the second person to take advantage of the housing loan program.

For around $140,000, he and his wife purchased a small modern bungalow.

In 2010, a new Primary to Grade 12 school was built practically in his backyard so his daughters, Lauren, 11, and Isabelle, 7, can walk to school.

So far, 28 employees have accessed the loan program.

“Oxford is a wonderful little town to live in and to raise a family,” said Stewart.

“One of our biggest challenges, just like in other small towns, is people migrating out west. The school has helped keep people here, and the housing program has, too.”

Beswick, A. (2015). Oxford Frozen Foods’ home loan program helps keep workers in rural N.S. The Chronicle Herald.