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  From the
  Blueberries are this farmer's passion
Biggest challenge? Selling them to the Japanese in the '70s
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

John Bragg of Oxford Foods shows off one of his blueberry fields.

'We, of course, say that the wild ones are more flavourful," John Bragg says as we take a tour of the sea of blue behind his house, "and wild blueberries grow on the ground, not on bushes."

As the largest producer of wild blueberries in Canada -- "no, wait, in the world," he corrects me -- the founder of Oxford Foods and Eastlink Communications says, "blueberries are my passion."

It all started when he was a teenager. "My Dad was in the lumber business in Nova Scotia," Mr. Bragg tells me. "He bought abandoned farms and I would pick blueberries there. By the time I was 15, I had my own commercial business."

He adds that, after a few years, he went from producing two tons of blueberries to his current production of 40,000 tons. In Nova Scotia and Maine, Oxford Foods owns and farms more than 14,000 acres of wild blueberries.

"You have to admit, that's a heck of a lot of blueberries," he says, pointing out that he sells to Japan, Germany, France, Italy, England and the United States, as well as Canada.

"My biggest marketing challenge was trying to sell blueberries to the Japanese in the '70s. They didn't know what a blueberry was," he laughs, adding, "Now that's a salesman's challenge."

As we sit in his factory in Oxford, N.S., he urges me to taste the contents of a jar with Japanese lettering (obviously he made his sale), "Blue Flag Blueberry jam -- it's now the standard in Japan, very close in popularity to strawberry and, at times, surpassing it."

This man loves blueberries and everything about them. He enthusiastically points out their health benefits (vision health and cancer prevention) and tells me excitedly that scientists at Tuft's University in Boston have found "blueberries may improve motor skills and actually reverse the short-term memory loss that comes with ageing."

Mr. Bragg says that when he started in the blueberry business, "money was not the motivator; it was the feeling of accomplishing something. There's a certain satisfaction you get from growing a crop that you don't get in other businesses."

He would know; he also operates Eastlink, a cable company that offers telephone service in Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

At this stage in his life, he says, his greatest satisfaction is in creating jobs in Nova Scotia.

"In Toronto, people have to drive hours to get what we have in our own backyard: fresh air, lakes, forests, beaches," he says.

Mr. Bragg adds he doesn't think the Maritimes or the people here get their just desserts. "When people think of the Maritimes, they think of unemployment, poverty and freeloaders," he says. "I don't like that image. I think the truth is that we have a terrific workforce and an entrepreneurial spirit."

But didn't he forget one obvious trait of Easterners? Down-home hospitality. For example, during a tour of his beautiful home, Mr. Bragg points out the guest bedroom, "where you and your kids can stay when you come for the weekend," he says. Later, he shows me a photo of his place in Kauai, Hawaii. "You're most welcome to stay there," he tells me, "when it's empty" (which, apparently, is most of the year).

It dawns on me that only an East Coaster would make that kind of offer to a complete stranger; and as a Nova Scotian myself, I can attest to the fact that only an East Coaster would take him up on such an offer.


  Last update: May 6, 2009
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