McCain Foods plant in Albany, P.E.I. Colin MacLean/Journal Pioneer
BORDEN-CARLETON — News Thursday that McCain Foods is closing its Borden-Carleton french fry plant has left plant employees and Island potato growers in shock.
The plant, which employs 121 people, will shut its doors Oct. 31.
John Bryant, 43, of Summerside, has been a chemical technician at the facility for a decade.
“There’s a lot of people in shock — really in shock that it’s happening,’’ Bryant said as he was leaving the plant.
“Everyone is leaving pretty depressed. Some people got to start over that have been here for 20 or 30 years, so I mean what are they going to do, where are they going to go from here?’’
McCain Foods broke the news to staff Thursday morning and sent a news release out a short time later. It cites as reasons for shutting down the shift in the demand for french fries from North America to other regions, the strong Canadian dollar and increased efficiency at other facilities.
“Production at the P.E.I. plant has declined by two-thirds over the last decade and the plant is now the smallest and least utilized facility in McCain’s North American network,’’ stated the news release.
“Closing a plant is one of the toughest decisions we ever face,’’ said Frank van Schaayk, president-Americas for McCain Foods. “We deeply regret the personal impact the closure will have on our P.E.I. employees and we are committed to providing support and resources to those affected.’’
The company is offering affected employees early retirement benefits, severance packages that exceed regulatory requirements as well as retraining options.
It is also contributing $2 million to the provincial government to help the community deal with the loss of a major employer.
Premier Robert Ghiz said he met with the company Tuesday but McCains didn’t ask for any financial help, even when he offered.
“There was nothing I could offer to entice them to stay,’’ Ghiz said. “I guess the writing’s been on the wall for a while.’’
With the plant closing, Ghiz said the government will work with McCain Foods to help find a new use for the plant or see it go to another industry.
“I’m an optimist. I think whenever one door closes another can open up.’’
Gary Linkletter, chairman of the P.E.I. Potato Board, said he was shocked and disappointed with the news.
He said McCain has been an important player in the P.E.I. potato industry for several decades, as it contracted with Island growers for delivery to processing plants in New Brunswick long before it invested directly by building a plant in Borden-Carleton in 1990. As well, the company has purchased Island tablestock and seed potatoes for markets in Canada and around the world.
Linkletter said there is no indication that those purchases will be affected by Thursday’s announcement.
“We have, as an industry, valued McCain (Foods) as an industry partner for a lot of years and I am really disappointed to see them closing down here,’’ Linkletter said. “We thought we had a lot to offer them. The plant here did some specialty products and the industry here supplied some good spuds.’’
The potato industry on P.E.I. accounts for 12 per cent of the province’s workforce.
This year, McCain contracted with 23 Island family farms for delivery of over $7 million worth of potatoes to the plant. McCain representatives have confirmed they will honour the contracts they’ve signed with growers for 2014, but plans for beyond this year are not known at this point.
Kevin MacIsaac of the United Potato Growers of P.E.I. said it’s not surprising considering McCain Foods has been reducing the volume of product at the plant for some time but he was still caught off guard by the news.
“We’re a little surprised it was announced today. I would have thought in the spring or fall. It’s got an Oct. 31 closure date on it so that will mean that they’ll not be processing this fall’s crop there,’’ MacIsaac said.
Rollo Bay grower Ray Keenan called it sad but expected.
“They’ve been slowing this plant down for many years and it was probably inevitable that they would close given the expansion they’ve done in other places,’’ Keenan said.
Not everyone thinks it’s bad news.
Sharon Labchuk, co-ordinator for environmental activist group Earth Action, caused a stir on social media Thursday afternoon after she tweeted “Fantastic news & blow to destructive potato industry! McCains french fry plant closing in P.E.I.’’
Earth Action then issued a news release in which Labchuk states the group has long advocated a shift from industrial food production to organic agriculture.
“The P.E.I. potato industry only exists thanks to huge direct and indirect subsidies from taxpayers that create unfair competition in the marketplace for organic food,’’ Labchuk said.
Labchuk said McCain’s decision proves big corporations don’t care about P.E.I. the way Islanders do and move on when cheaper commodities can be sourced elsewhere.
With files by TC Media