Nfld. & Labrador

Meet some of the innovators driving agriculture growth in N.L.

The provincial government wants to double food production by 2022 — these are some of the people working on it.

The provincial government wants to double local food production by 2022 — these are the people working on it

Asparagus beds grow in Wooddale. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

Last year, Premier Dwight Ball announced he wants to see the amount of food produced in Newfoundland and Labrador to double by 2022. It's an ambitious goal — right now, local farmers produce only 10 per cent of the food we eat in the province.

All across Newfoundland and Labrador, work to hit that target is underway: research done in labs, test crops planted in fields, and more arable land made available for development and financial support for new farmers.

Government scientists are collaborating with schools like Memorial University's Grenfell campus and the College of the North Atlantic, and a wealth of small, local initiatives like community gardens have popped up across the province.

Food First NL is working on getting more local food into communities, with community garden and community freezer programs, said Chad Pelley of the food security organization.

The group is also working to get more locally produced food into Newfoundland and Labrador institutions, and the province's health department is working with local farms to get their food into hospitals in central and western Newfoundland.

The Centre for Agriculture and Forestry Development in Wooddale includes greenhouses. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

A group in Pool's Cove is setting up a community livestock program with Food First NL's help, Pelley said.

The Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River is planning a community farm this year, and Rencontre East has a fruit tree sharing program.

These community-level programs are some of the successes so far in increasing access to local food in Newfoundland and Labrador. More work is happening on a larger scale but challenges remain, particularly around meat production and infrastructure.

Research and development

The provincial Centre for Agriculture and Forestry Development in Wooddale is one of the main innovation facilities working on new crops in the province.

Barry Linehan, manager of the Centre for Agriculture and Forestry Development in Wooddale, says potatoes are just the beginning. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

Right now that work involves clearing land to expand the nuclear seed potato program, said director Barry Linehan.

The program sees potatoes started in disease-free test tubes in St. John's before being planted in Wooddale, where 1,000 pounds is multiplied into 60,000 pounds after two or three seasons. Those plants are then shipped across the province to individual farmers who will multiply them further.

But potatoes are just the start, Linehan said. Asparagus beds are being planted, an apple orchard is getting established, and a grape vineyard is planned for next year.

"Who knows what the future holds? I expect grain crops," he said. "So there's going to be a lot of variety here over the next couple of years."

Memorial University's Grenfell Campus is working with Corner Brook Pulp and Paper on turning waste products like wood ash and sludge into soil supplements for agriculture, said environmental studies chair Kelly Vodden.

Kelly Vodden, chair of environmental studies at Memorial University's Grenfell Campus, says there's a need for greenhouse capacity to grow things like tomatoes and peppers at commercial levels. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

"We have a researcher looking at aquaculture facilities, fish hatcheries in particular, and how some of the waste from those facilities might help us make our agricultural productivity even better," Vodden said.

Scientists at Grenfell are studying things like food science, soil science and hydrology. The school's master's program in boreal agriculture has 32 graduate students researching different topics related to increasing the food supply.

Increasing meat production not so easy

However, increasing meat production is stymied by both the province's limited number of abattoirs and an absence of Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors.

Chad Pelley, communications manager for Food First NL, says the organization is working on getting more local food into communities. (CBC)

"There's a lot of interest, but farmers are a bit reticent on moving forward on some of that because inspection has to be there," said Merv Wiseman, president of the province's agriculture federation. "Without inspection, you're producing a product that can't be gotten into the revenue stream."

CFIA inspection is required for government institutions and procurement, Wiseman said, but is not available in the province. Proper inspection is also required to sell meat products in grocery retail chains like Dominion and Sobeys.

"If that retail stream is cut off from farmers, why would they put a lot of investment into that industry?" Wiseman said.

For that reason, meat production, with the exception of chicken, remains the purview of small farms that rely mainly on door-to-door sales.

Investment in infrastructure needed

Vodden said on the infrastructure side, there's also a need for greenhouse capacity to grow things like tomatoes and peppers at commercial levels.

"One of the other projects we've been looking at with Corner Brook Pulp and Paper is some of their excess heat that's produced through their production process, and could we channel some of that heat towards greenhouse production," she said.

"And just looking at bio-energy from our forest resources. Could we utilize our forest resources to help enhance agricultural production through greenhouses? Definitely another area of opportunity we're looking at, along with others."

Merv Wiseman, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture, says he doesn't know if the province will hit the provincial government's goal of doubling its food production by 2022. ((CBC))

The industry also needs cold storage, she said. Right now, crops must be sold quickly after harvesting because there is no way to preserve them for long periods. A large cold-storage facility could help keep the food for longer periods, extending the availability of local produce.

Goal achievable?

While there has been a lot happening at the research and development stage, it's still unclear if the government's 2022 target will be met.

"I can't answer that question," Wiseman said. "I can't even come close. Because I'm not seeing any level of communication between the department and ourselves, the Federation of Agriculture. I'm not seeing the kind of communication that can give us that kind of information."

A thousand pounds of potatoes will grow to be 60-thousand over a couple of planting seasons at this seed potato patch in Wooddale. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

The government's plan involves providing more land for agriculture, cutting red tape and wait times for people applying for land, and encouraging new farmers to enter the industry. But Wiseman said he's just not seeing much of a difference in what's actually happening on the ground. 

A lot of work still needs to happen for the 2022 target to be possible, he said.

Government: lots of potential

The Department of Fisheries and Land Resources did not provide a reply to CBC's questions before this story was originally published. 

In an emailed statement on Thursday afternoon, the department said the provincial government has:

  • Supported 46 new farmers through two programs.
     
  • Awarded two land development pilots for agriculture production in Reidville and Cormack.
     
  • Completed the year-long pilot project for production of vegetable transplants for industry.

The statement also says the equivalent of about 211 football fields have been prepared for fruit and vegetable production and that using a particular forecasting model, the "potential of this land would yield five million pounds of food for residents. This is an estimate of the potential of the new agricultural land."

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