Nfld. & Labrador·Special Report

This farmer's veggie business is booming. Why is the future still so uncertain?

Canada's farmers are getting older, and there are fewer farms than in past years. In western Newfoundland, Elvis Gillam is proud of what he's accomplished, but doesn't know what will happen to his crops when he retires next year.

Canada's farmers are getting older, and there are fewer farms than in past years

Elvis Gillam, 63, has been farming Riverbrook Farms in Loch Leven since the age of 19. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

This is the latest instalment in a new series from CBC Atlantic called Farming your Food: How Atlantic Canadian producers are coping in COVID. We'll take a close look at the food on your plate and how it gets there, starting with some of the people responsible for that food, the producers. We'd welcome your questions and story ideas. 

In the midst of global turmoil, Elvis Gillam's greenhouses are a rare reprieve.

They are teeming with thousands of seedlings and their scent of new life.

As these baby vegetables stretch and spread their leaves, however, their 63-year-old steward hovers over them, contemplating endings.

"I'm not sick of vegetable farming. I'm a little tired of vegetable farming," he said in an interview.

 "I still have the same passion I had when I was 19 years old. I love to take a small seed and put it in the ground and watch the fruits of my labour develop." 

In the middle of his fifth decade working the soil of Riverbrook Farms in Loch Leven, a pastoral speck of Newfoundland 90 minutes southwest of Corner Brook, Gillam vows the next season will be his last.

While his early years were lean ones, he says agriculture has been more than kind to him the past 15 years. He has watched consumer demand for local produce blossom, and has seen his farmer's market in Corner Brook increase in business, year over year.

The only hiccup he sees in the COVID-19 pandemic will be changing the market's layout come harvest time.

"The vegetable market, whether you're selling wholesale or retail, is really good," he said.

Dwindling numbers of commercial farms

But even as demand rises, he's watched fellow farmers pass on without a successor or sell off and leave the industry. He reminisces of decades ago, when fellow vegetable farmers filled the local Lions Club or legion hall for meetings.

Nowadays, he says, that can take place in the cab of his pickup truck.

"Today, in 2020, I can really say that I am the only commercial farm left here in this area," he said, adding there are two much smaller operations in his vicinity, with both of those farmers now in their 70s.

Pumpkin seedlings start off the season inside one of Gillam's greenhouses. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Some of the surrounding empty fields have been bought up by the big dairy farm nearby for pasture or for forage, but Gillam has seen much of the fertile land around him in Bay St. George South go fallow, then feral, and then return to wilderness. Without a successor of his own, Gillam's 120 acres could also return to spruce stands when he retires at the end of 2021.

He'd then join a troubling decline.

According to Statistics Canada, the numbers of farmers and farms across the country are contracting. But the sharpest drop has been in Newfoundland and Labrador, where from 2011 to 2016 the province lost 20 per cent of its farms, and 25 per cent of its farmers.

In the same time frame, Gillam's sector also shrank, as field vegetable production dropped by eight per cent.

Pandemic demand

Those are tough numbers for a province that already has the fewest number of farms of any province in Canada, and one that imports 90 per cent of its food.

And it's hard to reconcile with the spring of 2020, when Newfoundland and Labrador producers of all kinds say shoppers have swamped their farmstands since COVID-19 restrictions became the reality.

"Our farm Facebook page and our personal messages, text messages, emails — it has been going crazy," said Terri Lynn Robbins, who runs Robbins Family Farms in Deer Lake alongside her husband.

Deluged by calls, their small operation sold out of pork in less than a day back in March.

"This pandemic has shown people that food security is an issue here in our province, and they want to know that they can get it easily, and where it's coming from," she said.

Bill and Terri Lynn Robbins have foregone flower sales this year at their Deer Lake farm, and switched those greenhouses over to vegetable production to meet demand. (Submitted/Robbins Family Farm and Gardens)

Prior to the pandemic, the Robbins had been planning to pivot from fresh flower sales to vegetables, and the early spring spike in support gave them the final push toward offering a weekly subscription basket filled with veggies, eggs and meats.

Initially, they planned to try filling 10 such baskets. They ended up capping it at 30 — a drop in the bucket toward the province's problem, but a more than encouraging start for the Robbins.

"The response that we got was overwhelming," said Robbins. "We've quadrupled our vegetable production for this year."

A few ways forward

As the Robbins try to capitalize on demand, they're availing of a provincial government program that supplies them with vegetable transplants at cost. It's one of a multitude of initiatives the province has announced in an effort to meet its target of doubling food production to 20 per cent by 2022, a goal it states it has made "significant progress" toward since its start in 2017.

Alongside programs targeting existing operations, numerous initiatives have rolled out to increase the agricultural workforce, involving non-profit groups and other organizations. One matches skilled newcomers and refugees with existing farmers, another pairs young farmers with experienced ones.

There's also a new agricultural technician program at the College of the North Atlantic, which capped out at 12 students, although that first cohort has had their first work terms on farms postponed by the pandemic.

It would be a crime to see my lifetime put into making something so fertile and rich, end up as a golf course.- Elvis Gillam

The province has also offered up almost 43,700 hectares of Crown land to farmers, much of that wilderness identified as having agricultural potential.

"In my opinion, government is singing a good song in trying to get food security for Newfoundland," said Gillam, although it's a flat "no" from him as to whether the government can meet its food production goals.

"Don't give a kid a piece of land and say, 'Go farm it.' That's not going to happen."

Agriculture, against the odds

A team of entrants to the produce game agreed that clearing their own land to start from scratch would have been far too big a challenge to tackle. The trio behind Walsh's Blueberries have been scaling a serious learning curve since they bought the 420-acre farm in Colliers, an hour outside St. John's, in 2018, about five years after its previous owner had passed away. 

Bob Griffin, left, and Jake Brennan are two of the three young farmers from St. John's who took over Walsh's Blueberry Farms in 2018. (Submitted/Jake Brennan)

One of their biggest tasks has been what Gillam fears for his farm, as the three new farmers attempt to reclaim the blueberry bushes after years of being left largely unmaintained.

"We came into it with fields that were being encroached upon by woods along the edge — we've had overgrowth in the middle of the field," said co-owner Jake Brennan.

Brennan credits their veteran lead hand, Keith Bartlett, with helping the novices through the transition —"he's like a walking encyclopedia" — and advising on how to restore the fields to their former levels of production, which will require years more work to accomplish. 

But Brennan says it's work his team is happy to do.

"We really enjoy being involved in the industry," he said. "It's really captured our interests and our hearts, and we'd really like to keep pushing it, and keep producing food right here on the island for sale."

Echoing other producers, Brennan said sales have been the relatively easy part of their job as people clamour for both their top-quality berries and the lesser ones for secondary processing.

While expansion is on the farmers' minds, that can't happen until the current land restoration is under control.

Pastureland abounds in Bay St. George South with several dairy operations in the area, but vegetable fields left unused have been overtaken by native flora. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Location, location, location

Location, for the Walsh's crew, was paramount to their entry into agriculture.

Brennan and his partners wanted something close by to the St. John's area, where all three live and work, to be able to ease into farming while maintaining, for now, the security of their current jobs.

That's about 800 kilometres away from Gillam's fields in Loch Leven, and while Gillam doesn't see his location as a barrier to potential farmers, it's hard not to notice the surrounding solitude. The elementary school down the street from his farmhouse is boarded up, and Gillam remarks the number of children passing by aboard the school bus these days would better fit in a minivan. 

Gillam checks in on the seedlings for what he has vowed will be his second last year of farming. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

He admits Bay St. George South may have already slid too far down the demographic slide to be able to bring back what once existed, arable land or no.

"Sometimes, it can be too late," he said. "I hope I'm wrong, in saying that it is too late to revitalize what was here 44 years ago." 

Gillam hopes now that someone will prove him wrong, although none of his children followed in his footsteps and his farm workers are all fellow senior citizens. And when he officially puts his land up for sale at the end of next year's harvest, that his soil will see vegetables grow in it again.

"i hope and pray that it stays in farming. It would be a crime to see my lifetime put into making something so fertile and rich, end up as a golf course."

Read more from Newfoundland and Labrador


Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is the producer and host of Atlantic Voice, a CBC Radio 1 show showcasing documentaries and storytelling from the east coast. She is based out of CBC Corner Brook.

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