Free food for families is among the big agricultural ideas growing on this tiny Gambo farm
Kingfisher Farm is a surprisingly prolific scrap of Gambo ground.
There are a few usual suspects growing in its raised beds — garlic, lettuce, tomatoes — but most are more unusual, like goji berries, Japanese turnip and cantaloupe. That's all made especially notable by the farm's short history: 2021 is only the second season of production for what used to be home to little more than a hillside heap of gravel.
"When we bought this land, it was a quarry, basically. There was no dirt here," said co-owner Samatha Whitman, gazing around at her eighth of an acre and remembering the not-so-distant past.
"We've been able to build up the soil from what we had access to, and we've been able to produce enough food for dozens of families, with very little land, very little resources, and just using what we have."
Last year, Kingfisher Farm kept Whitman and her partner in agriculture and life, Nathan Gidge, eating their own vegetables for close to six months and supplied weekly veggie baskets to a full list of customers, with further demand left unmet.
"We had intentions of going to the farmers' market but we just never got there, because our product sold out before we had a chance, which was great," said Gidge.
For their second season, the couple set sweeping goals, echoing Kingfisher Farm's envious Freshwater Bay views. They've tripled production within their same farming footprint, and acted on a germ of generosity: for every weekly veggie basket they sell, they're donating one to the local Family Resource Centre to go to young families in need.
"We've always wanted this to be an educational farm, and a farm that gives back," said Gidge. "We've been very, very lucky to be where we are in our lives, so it's always been a want for the farm to be more than a producer of food for profit."
Whitman said most of their clientele are young families, and wanted to provide produce even those who may not be able to afford it. "I think it's just a really great opportunity for families to be able to choose healthy options," she said.
A family focus
Focusing on families comes naturally to Kingfisher Farm. Whitman is a doula, Gidge spent a decade as a high school principal and teacher, and their toddler, Gabriel, is at the heart of their new venture.
"He's so curious, he's adventurous, and he's dirty 95 per cent of the time," laughed Whitman. "For us, that's how you have a happy childhood, and I think that's how we really wanted to raise him."
But the couple doesn't just want to show their son the benefits of crunching on fresh kale. They hope supplying locals with organic produce beyond the staple root vegetables encourages broader taste bud horizons, and say their sellouts so far show an appetite.
"There's a real demand for a change in taste," said Gidge.
Along with selling veggies, the couple have led kid-friendly seed-planting workshops and plan to continue down that path in the future, with an eye toward encouraging others to get into gardening. Gidge recalls the rural Newfoundland of old, when many people tended backyard plots to partly feed themselves, and wants to see that come full circle.
"It's lovely that were able to sell our products, but the ultimate dream is almost for our customers to put us out of business, so that they'll grow their own food," he said.
"We really think that's a big part of the solution to the food shortage in Newfoundland."
Little by little: A farming philosophy
The couple have no shortage of ideas about how to address the province's lopsided food problem, in which Newfoundland and Labrador imports the vast amount of what it eats.
It's a big issue that's preoccupied provincial policy and spending in recent years, but an area Whitman and Gidge think can be tackled in part by staying small. Kingfisher Farm isn't that much bigger than many people's backyards, but the two are trying to maximize the space, using a diversity of crops, rotating them regularly and adhering to organic practices that prioritize soil health to get the most out of the land.
"When we can meet the full potential of what we have, we'll look at getting bigger. But until then, we both think it's a little bit irresponsible to be clearing land and bulldozing and bringing in all kinds of different soils and amendments if we're not making use of what we already have," said Gidge.
Their organic, polyculture philosophy enters the political at times, as Gidge surveys agricultural trends in the province, like big investments in monoculture farming like potatoes, and finds them lacking.
"I hope truly that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador realizes the potential it has to be an agricultural hub," he said. "But I hope that realization comes with the knowledge that monoculture, synthetic fertilizers, are not the answer in the long term."
Newfoundland and Labrador's distinction as having the smallest agricultural sector in Canada is an advantage to Gidge, a "rare opportunity to learn from others' mistakes."
"I hope we're smarter than that. I really do. And I hope in consultation with farmers, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador will make smart decisions to do this — working with nature, rather than destroying it and trying to change it," he said.
"Nature's going to win."
With files from Carolyn Stokes and Garrett Barry