It’s taking longer than expected to complete the tallest building in Sackville, but Evelyn and David Ernst say the state-of-the art, 44-metre, frozen food storage freezer should be ready in June.
The Ernsts, co-owners of Terra Beata Farms, are building the 14-storey freezer in the Sackville Industrial Park in partnership with Burnbrae Farms, the Ontario-based company that operated the egg-processing plant there before closing it in 2011.
On Tuesday, the Ernsts, who are both 50, were cruising along the TransCanada Highway toward Sackville after attending a two-day cranberry convention in Quebec City.
“Quebec has a very strong cranberry industry,” Evelyn Ernst said by cellphone. “They organize very educational sessions on growing cranberries or marketing cranberries, but it’s also a great way to get together with all the other growers, talk cranberries and learn about the latest trends in the industry.”
The Ernsts have been talking and learning about cranberries since the late 1990s when they bought a 12-acre peat bog across from their home on Heckmans Island near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
“David was working at High Liner Foods, which is the big fish processor in Lunenburg,” Evelyn said on her scratchy phone connection. “And at that point, the fishing industry was not going very well.”
“We had caught all the fish because there weren’t many left to catch in the ocean,” David said, referring to a time when High Liner had decided to decommission its fishing boats because of dwindling stocks.
“And so, David thought this does not look very good,” Evelyn said, adding that when the nearby land came up for sale in a tax auction, he said they should buy it.
“And, I said ‘if we buy it, what are we going to do with it?’ And, he said, ‘well, plant cranberries.'”
After David took a cranberry-growing course from the Nova Scotia department of agriculture, the Ernsts were on their way. Three years later, when they couldn’t sell their first crop, they bought used home freezers to store it, taking their first step into food processing.
Eventually, the Ernsts learned that although people would buy fresh and frozen cranberries, they also wanted products Evelyn had made to demonstrate how versatile cranberries could be, so today they sell a variety of them including juice, preserves and dried fruit.
They still operate their farm, but also buy cranberries from about a dozen other farms in Atlantic Canada, handling more than five million pounds a year and serving markets in a wide variety of countries including Germany, France, Ireland, Poland, Latvia, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.
Their products are also sold in stores across Canada.
Over the years, the Ernsts have been able to expand their operations thanks to a series of repayable loans provided by the federally funded Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
State of the art cold storage
The Ernsts decided they needed the freezer building in Sackville to take control of the frozen cranberries they were storing at a variety of rented facilities where costs were steadily rising and where it was increasingly difficult to keep track of their inventory.
“The other companies that we compete against on the frozen cranberry market have their own freezing and storage facilities,” Evelyn says. “So, this is a way to have control over our cranberries,” she adds, “and for us to keep our costs under control.”
David explains that the new facility is state-of-the art, known in the trade as High Bay Cold Storage, a fully automated storage and retrieval system developed by SSI Schaefer.
“The structure that everybody saw being built through the summer is actually racking that will work like shelves to hold pallets of product,” Evelyn says, adding that the frozen food will be moved into the cold storage on a conveyor system where it will be picked up by a crane to be placed on the racking.
“The racking is set up so that there are four long aisles from one end to the other end and the cranes run back and forth along railway tracks that are placed in each aisle so each crane can pick up product or retrieve product from either side of the track that it runs on,” Evelyn explains.
To see a video demonstration of an automated SSI Schaefer cold storage facility in Belgium, click here.
Since the Ernsts will be using only 20 per cent of the capacity in the huge storage building, they’re planning to rent space to other frozen food companies offering a centrally located, fully automated storage site with computerized inventory tracking. David says the facility can hold up to 30 million pounds of frozen food.
Cranberries and blueberries
Although the project won’t be finished until June, the Ernsts point out that they’ve been using the former egg plant building in partnership with East Coast Wild Blueberries of Great Village, N.S.
“We already installed and ran last season a blueberry and cranberry cleaning line,” David says.
“That means that last summer,” Evelyn adds, “trucks arrived in that facility from blueberry farms in August and September and then from cranberry farms in October and November.”
David says the fruit was cleaned, dried and quick frozen. Once the cold storage building is ready, the fruit will be stored there saving the costs of trucking it to other sites.
At the moment, the Ernsts have 29 employees at their farm in Nova Scotia and three in Sackville, but will be needing more workers here when the full facility is up and running.
“The only thing I’d like to find now is the brightest and best Sackville young people,” David says, adding that they want a mix of older, experienced workers as well as younger ones.
“I have two requirements for people to work for us,” he says. “They have to be able to think and they have to be able to care.”
The Ernsts say they’ll need versatile people, everything from line workers and fork-lift operators to a facility manager.
“We want people who feel like they own the place,” David says.