An island orchard: How one couple is working towards Newfoundland food security

Crow Brook Orchard is one couple's dream of growing fruit, and increasing food security, writes Lindsay Bird.
Annette George and Andre Charlebois digging holes at the orchard the old fashioned way - by hand. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

There's mud on the ground, and snow sticking to the tops of the mountains.

Welcome to June, in western Newfoundland.

As spring claws its way out from under a back-breaking winter, two untested farmers near Hughes Brook are equally determined to get their dream sprouting: Crow Brook Orchard.

A documentary by the CBC's Lindsey Bird called 'The Blossoming of Crow Brook Orchard.' 27:10

Growing nectarines, sweet cherries, grapes, and more non-native fruits has preoccupied Annette George and her husband Andre Charlebois since they moved to Newfoundland from New Brunswick in 2012, settling near where George grew up on the north shore of the Bay of Islands.

"It's doable. And when people say it's not doable, it makes me more determined to make it doable," said George, radiating a rubber-boots optimism.

Just a few of the 86 fruit trees waiting to be planted. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"Just trying to grow food locally, do more things locally. Because it just seems like there's this dependence on the mainland that's precarious at best," added Charlebois, who sharply felt the island's winter food shortages.

They two began scouting the wilderness just beyond their backyard, and stumbled upon a six-and-a-half hectare patch of forest, nestled into a mountain valley near Hughes Brook.

"The kinda eureka moment was when I saw the brook there, and it just kinda resonated with me," said George, standing at the cliff's edge of their now-crown leased land, the panorama stretching from sky, to mountains, to stream below her. 

"It's almost a little bit of paradise I could see in it."

Hard work, by hand

With paradise found, the hard work began: hiring an excavator to clear one acre for this season, tilling the soil, and digging holes for each of their 86 fruit saplings, 120 raspberry canes, 20 grape vines and a mix of root vegetables, all by hand.

"The old-fashioned way," laughed Charlebois, wiping away sweat despite the chilly June air.

"These are pretty badly placed rows of trees here. We aren't using measuring tape — just trying to put them where they fit," said George, checking over her spindly apple trees, admitting it's a bit of a rush to get everything planted.

"This came from Ontario, the climate's a bit better up there. They started to bud out before they even got here, meanwhile we still had snow on the ground."

Even with the snow gone, the wilderness remains. The soil here is naturally a rich, sandy loam, but with large rocks and other fruit-tree-unfriendly debris everywhere.

"It really gives you a respect, for what my ancestors had to do," said George, swinging a heavy pick to dislodge a stone the size of a basketball.

"It wasn't always easy, you know, and now we're going to grocery stores. And you get disconnected to where the food comes from."

All this labour fills up the edges of the couple's lives. George and Charlebois both have full-time jobs in other fields, and devote their evenings, weekends and daydreams to the orchard.

The orchard is a full-on family affair, with the couple's daughter Eleanor lending a hand. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Permaculture plan

The chaotic planting has a purpose behind it.

The orchard is meant to be an organic, permaculture operation, a system of agriculture that works in tandem with the natural surrounding ecosystem.

"There's so much food here that's growing now that I can see," said George, pointing to the abundant fiddlehead ferns and raspberry bushes at the edges of the clearing.

"Nature does provide, no doubt about it. But I guess what we're trying to do is harness it, and assist it to grow bigger. Grow food that normally doesn't grow here… We plan on growing it in a more permaculture way, so we're not harming the natural beauty that's here."

"It's thinking about our daughter's future too, on the island here," added Charlebois. 

The couple's four-year-old Eleanor has been a big factor in pursuing their orchard dreams.

"It wasn't about me anymore, it was about making the world better for her, because I'm seeing so many things that are wrong. and I can't just be a bystander, " said George.

"I had to at least do my part. And while I'm not gonna change the world, I can at least change some attitudes here."

A model for 'the rest of the world'

Just a few kilometres away, at Memorial University's Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook, is a relatively new institution, that's adding to that attitude shift. 

The Boreal Ecosystem Research Facility officially opened in 2014, with a handful of experts examining agricultural and environmental issues through academic research and projects.

"I think the Humber Valley has a lot of the right elements — the right elements are coming together where we can have successful agricultural production," said Catherine Keske, an agricultural economist and professor.

Agricultural economist Catherine Keske is one of the professors at the Boreal Ecosystem Research Facility. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"We're bringing together a lot of people who specialize in cold climate agricultural production. And all of that working together, I think we're going to make the Humber Valley a really great resource for agricultural production."

"I think we can model this for the rest of the world, I do."

'Do we need to do that?'

One of Keske's many projects underway is editing an anthology of recent research about Newfoundland's food security situation — something, she says, has always been a hot topic on the island.

"People have had an interest for being self-sufficient that's spanned centuries," said Keske.

"I think it's understanding from our ancestors what they've done, what they did  well, what didn't work out."

Keske applauds efforts like Crow Brook Orchard, and George's organic, permaculture slant.

"She's having low impact, as much as possible, on the land. And I think this is really important, because wide scale agricultural production, using chemicals and pesticides— I'm not saying it's necessarily bad to do that. But what I'm saying, do we really need to do that? We have other advantages on this island," said Keske.

"Perhaps this organic production could be an advantage that we ha e here in the province." 

July-uary 

It's less trial by fire, than trial by frost, for the two farmers throughout the summer.

On the heels of the late spring came a July with more bitterly cold days than sunny ones.

"This growing season, it started out really slow, so everything is  pretty much behind," said George, who added the pressure is off for a fruit harvest this year.

"I nipped all the buds here on these trees, so they could get their roots in really good, where it's their first year here."

George expects to get a full harvest in five years time, and hopes to sell that fruit locally, or have people come pick it themselves.

That will help ease the financial strain of Crow Brook Orchard, which has been funded so far by the couple's savings.

"We're pinching our pennies and we're counting our dollars. Every bit of spare money is going into this," said George, who is looking for funding to expand her operation.

"If I have a little bit of extra more money to put in, say, a hundred more apple trees— that's more success five years down the road."

Fireweed in full bloom. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Less fruit, more wildflowers

By early September, the clearing is filled with fireweed, the purplish blooms taking advantage of the tilled, rich soil from spring.

"It's pretty impressive actually, I mean, some of it is five feet tall," said George, laughing at becoming an inadvertent wildflower farmer.

"I wanted to mow it down at first, to let the plants that I was planting as forage to come up, but the bees seem to be enjoying this more, and it's natural."

Re-training your eye beyond the fireweed takes a moment, but then the fruit trees begin to pop out of the landscape, some of them growing thirty centimetres or more despite their growing season setbacks. 

"I thought we were gonna lose them, but here they are, doing their thing, growing," said George.

'People want change'

Another surprise this growing season came not from the plants, but from the budding community interest in the orchard.

Some of the saplings had 30 centimetres of growth by September. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"People come up to me, and are talking to me, the dialogue is open there about sustainable agriculture" said George. 

"And they're asking me questions about the orchard, and I have people asking my family, 'when's the orchard going to be opening?' It just gives me positive vibes that people are wanting this. They are ready now. People want change."

As the desire for local food grows, George hopes Crow Brook Orchard grows along with it. 

She and her husband will spend the winter hard at work— indoors — planning the orchard's future, and staying true to their vision.

"At the end of the day, we need to ask, why are we doing this? Why is this so important? And the answer is, to make things better."

There was a small 2015 harvest: a few vegetables like green onions and shallots. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Click on the audio player to hear Lindsay Bird's documentary, which originally aired on Atlantic Voice.

About the Author

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.

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