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Tony Barkhouse has worked at the Sainte-Famille winery, which is seeking to expand, for 11 years. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)
Tony Barkhouse has worked at the Sainte-Famille winery, which is seeking to expand, for 11 years. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

Nova Scotia MP believes wineries hold key to a revitalized future Add to ...

Suzanne and Doug Corkum produce 5,000 cases of wine every year from the grapes they grow on 25 acres in Nova Scotia’s verdant Annapolis Valley. Yet the Sainte-Famille winemakers, who are one of the producers of Tidal Bay, Nova Scotia’s premier white wine, can’t keep up with demand.

So they’re making an offer on a nearby piece of land that will help them expand their harvest – and hopefully double production. Ms. Corkum, who first planted Marechal Foch grapes in 1980, says they need more fruit.

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It’s a good problem and not one unique to the Corkums. Every grape grown in the province is used; the 12 grape wineries can’t keep their wine on the shelves. The industry needs an injection of entrepreneurial energy and expertise.

Enter Scott Brison, the Liberal MP for the area, and a commission tasked by the Dexter government with figuring out how to halt the hollowing out of rural communities as industry, jobs and young people move to cities – a Canada-wide trend. Mr. Brison thinks the commission should focus on the small communities that dot the Annapolis Valley, with the wine industry the catalyst to growth.

If he has his way, a targeted influx of immigrants from the economically depressed winemaking countries of Europe – Spain, Portugal, Italy and even France – will “turbo-charge” the viticulture industry.

“The idea here is to build critical mass in the Nova Scotia wine industry and to take it to another level while at the same time bring in more immigrants – to revitalize our rural communities with the influx of new and productive immigrants,” Mr. Brison says.

Although he acknowledges his idea needs a lot more study, he sees it being modelled on a similar program used just after the Second World War, in which the Nova Scotia and federal governments collaborated to bring Dutch farmers to work underutilized land.

“There was an opportunity to acquire or in some cases lease the land at the time – and the same could be said today,” Mr. Brison says.

Winemaking skills are easily transferrable, even across the Atlantic Ocean. And there is historical precedent: In the late 1800s, when most vines in Europe were destroyed by pests, winemakers left France in search of fertile, vermin-free ground. That’s how Chile’s wine industry was born.

“We need fresh blood and it’s not just enough to bring them here, there has to be something for them to do,” Mr. Brison says. “It’s worth a try.”

Mr. Brison hopes specific ideas like his – not just generalities – will make their way into the commission’s interim report, due out in April. The commission is consulting across the province now.

Ray Ivany, the chair of the Building Our New Economy commission and president of Acadia University, is intrigued. Like Mr. Brison, he believes Nova Scotia’s traditional industries – fishing, farming and forestry – could be tweaked in ways that add economic value. “There’s an idea that has merit in that it represents a different trajectory,” he says.

He notes, for example, that trap-caught shrimp [as opposed to the less environmentally sound practice of trawling] from Guysborough County sells in Toronto at a premium price because it is from a sustainable fishery.

“You are drawing on all that knowledge, all of that traditional, cultural understanding of the sea and fishing, applying it in a different way and creating more wealth,” Mr. Ivany says.

Immigration will be an important ingredient in the commission’s success, Mr. Ivany says. So will attracting and keeping entrepreneurs.

One commissioner, John Bragg, made his fortune growing blueberries in tiny Oxford, in northern Nova Scotia. His business has attracted young professionals to his head office in the rural area, although he says they could find jobs anywhere in the world. He believes it’s the lifestyle – no commuting or parking issues, a good school, and amenities like a golf course and ski hill nearby – that keeps them there.

“I have this theory that we can do a tremendous amount in rural Nova Scotia working one town at a time,” Mr. Bragg says. “And I take that from the leader of Walmart, who was asked, ‘How do you run [your stores]?’ … and he says, ‘I have no idea. We just run them one at a time – and we run them well one at a time.’ ”

Mr. Bragg and Mr. Ivany both point to the Cape Breton village of Inverness, where golf entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar built a golf course, created jobs and revitalized a struggling community.

“Ben is doing something [former Liberal cabinet minister and senator from Cape Breton] Allan MacEachen worked at for 50 years, to try and bring some life to that community – and he’s doing it,” Mr. Bragg says. “Ten years ago, people would say there would be no hope for it [the community].”

Nick Jennery, head of the Winery Association of Nova Scotia, shares Mr. Brison’s view that it’s all about critical mass. This week, his association released figures showing the industry contributes $200-million annually to the Nova Scotia economy. In 2011, 1,264 tonnes of grapes were harvested, compared to 56 tonnes in 1987. And there’s room to grow. He says investors and wine growers from Ontario, Atlantic Canada – and Europe – are all welcome.

“We don’t have enough,” he says. “We can’t grow enough.”

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