Nfld. & Labrador

Farm mentorship program grows N.L.'s food production, one protege at a time

A government plan to increase the amount of food grown in the province is bearing fruit — or at least vegetables.

First successful pairing under new strategy wraps up its first harvest

Krista Chatman is mentoring Damien Oliver as he launches his career in farming. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

A plan by the provincial government to increase the amount of food grown in Newfoundland and Labrador is bearing fruit — or at least vegetables.

Farmers in the province produce just 10 per cent of the fruits and vegetables we eat, and the government wants to double that by 2022. One of the new tools it's trying is a mentorship program in which veteran farmers help and teach people just getting into the business.

The first successful pairing has just wrapped up their harvest.

At Three Mile Ridge Farm near Lethbridge, Bonavista Bay, the geese and chickens clamour for a feed as soon as the barn door opens. They produce eggs and meat for the farm's market, but they're a sort of sideline.

The real business here is vegetables: more than a dozen varieties, from potatoes to squash.

This is the last of the season's produce at Three Mile Ridge Farm near Lethbridge, N.L. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

Krista Chatman is the woman behind it all.

"I was born and raised on the farm I now run. So basically, it's the only thing I know. I've been falling asleep on a tractor since I was two years old," she said. 

She wasn't planning to be a farmer at first. She went to university and got a degree in child psychology.

The first year, everything died in the ground because we had a drought. And the second year it never stopped raining so it all drowned. Then the third year, I finally got something.- Krista Chatman

But, when she moved back home 12 years ago, she realized she couldn't stand to see all that farmland lying fallow. So Chatman, a stay-at-home mother at the time, started planting, taking her baby out to play while she worked the field.

She says it took her three years to produce a successful crop.

"It was extremely, extremely rewarding," she said. "Certainly after the first year, everything died in the ground because we had a drought. And the second year it never stopped raining so it all drowned. Then the third year, I finally got something."

Through it all, she never lost heart.

"Well, that's the thing about farming. You can try again every single year," she laughed. "You get to replant and it's a seed, so it can grow. You just have to figure out what elements it needs perfectly to grow and produce something."

Realizing there's only a short growing season, in the third year, she asked her husband to build her a greenhouse.

"That certainly gave us more time to get product in the ground. So we do all transplants mostly here. No direct seeding."

Squash and other gourds are still for sale at Three Mile Ridge Farm and market. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

Now that she's got the knack for growing on her own farm, Chatman has joined the Federation of Agriculture's new mentorship program.

Damien Oliver, 21, is her protege.

 "It was the first year I tried transplants," he explained. "And I mean, I must have had a thousand questions for her. Over every day, calling her probably twice every day. Asking her questions, asking her opinions, asking her everything."

Chatman was only too happy to answer all those questions.

Local jams and pickles are for sale at Chatman's Three Mile Ridge Farm. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

She and Oliver have a lot in common, including coming back to the family farm in a roundabout way.

"My pop was at it ever since 1977, and he was at the hennery with chickens and poultry and so I was around that since I was maybe two or three," he said.

"So farming is just in my blood. It's just natural. I actually got a trade in heavy equipment operating. I went and done that and I left school and I came home and I did not like that at all. So I planted a few acres just for to try it out and I loved every minute of it. I loved every bit. So I said well now then, I'm going at the farming now."

As well as learning the tricks of the trade, Oliver is also learning what not to do.

"I just hope that through the mentorship program that he's able to learn from the mistakes I know I made," Chatman said. "And so, I can see if he's about to make a mistake or like, if he's about to go in a certain direction, and redirect him and say, 'No, how about you do this because this is what's going to happen if you go that way. And the reason I know is because I did that, and this is the result, and it wasn't very good.'"

The horses at Chatman's farm aren't just nice pets; they provide fertilizer for the crops as well. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

Both farmers did well this season.

And Chatman says she learned a few things too.

"Damien does certain things a little bit differently because you got to do what suits your own farm and what suits your own livelihood," she said, noting that their lifestyles are very different; while Oliver and his girlfriend have no children, Chatman and her husband have two boys, with attendant schooling and other commitments.

"It certainly changes the cycle of the way we do things," she said.

Of course, farming's not going to be for everyone. But Oliver's thrilled with the choice he's made and the valuable help he's received from Chatman.

"You got to have family there too, to help you. To help you through everything. But for people trying to get into farming, yeah. It's a big risk, but if you likes outside and gardening, outside at anything, I would recommend it. Go farming," he said with a smile.

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