Nfld. & Labrador·Crop conundrum

With far fewer farmers, how can N.L. grow more food?

A stunning 20 per cent of the province's farms stopped operating in one recent five-year period.

Industry looking to innovate in order to get new faces on province's farms

Boyd Maynard and Laurie Haycock are the husband-and-wife team behind a new farm in Norris Point. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Fresh off their second season selling vegetables in Norris Point, Laurie Haycock and her husband can't quite believe their success. 

"Getting it out there in the community, and selling food that you produced to your community, it's a pretty proud moment," said Haycock, co-owner of the Gros Morne Farm and Market.

"We sold everything we grew. It was a great season for us."

The demand is there, but Newfoundland and Labrador desperately needs more people like Haycock, as the province looks to double the amount of food the province produces — from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the population's needs — by 2022. 

An ambitious goal, made all the more daunting by a major demographic challenge: the average age of a farmer in the province now sits at 55.

According to Statistics Canada, from 2011 to 2016 Newfoundland land Labrador lost 20 per cent of its farms, going from 510 farms down to 407. That's the fewest number of farms of any of the provinces. Compare that to 1951, when there were more than 3,600 farms.

Startling figures, even for a province that leads the country for the fastest-aging population.

Amid that gloomy backdrop, farmers, academics and organizations attending the province's biennial agricultural symposium in Corner Brook spent Thursday morning sharing ideas and insights.

More than 200 people took part in the two-day agricultural symposium, to address challenges in the industry and look for innovations. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Helping refugees, and farmers

One project, on the brink of fruition, may actually accomplish a double goal of boosting both the agricultural workforce and the province's immigration strategy.

Bridging the Gap, a project spearheaded by the Association of New Canadians, is looking to play matchmaker between refugees and farms.

The first phase of the plan, launched in January, has identified 30 refugees in the province — from as far away as Sudan and Syria — who want to work on farms, and already know skills such as operating farm equipment. 

"Coming from more rural parts of the world, a lot of them have experience already in farming. And it turns out to be exactly what Newfoundland and Labrador needs. We need people in that industry," said Justin Campbell, the association's diversity outreach co-ordinator, adding these refugees already have an average 14 years of agricultural experience.

Justin Campbell of the Association for New Canadians says the organization's new project could help both refugees and farmers towards the goal of running successful farms. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Looking ahead to spring

The organization has been speaking with farmers across Newfoundland and Labrador about the challenges they're facing, and Campbell said it's clear succession planning for the businesses they have worked so hard for is top of mind.

"What they really need is people who want to get into this line of work," he said.

Campbell said as the association finishes up research for its pilot project, it hopes to place up to 10 refugees on farms in the province by the spring of 2019, on four-month work placements.

There will be some training required, to improve refugees' English skills and boost their knowledge of cold climate crops, said Campbell. But if successful, the project presents a chance for Newfoundland and Labrador to attract a niche of immigrants and refugees who may not want to settle in larger centres.

"This is one way we can set ourselves apart from other areas of the country, and really boost our immigration levels overall," he said.

'They want more local'

Campbell was just one of the symposium speakers bandying about ideas and innovations Thursday.

The room itself was a testament to how important this topic has become; the first such symposium, in 2012, had 100 attendees, while more than 245 people registered for the 2018 edition, with an equal split of young and old faces in the crowd.

"These types of events, and some of the new resources that are out there, are the types of things we need to see to start to turn things back in the right direction," said Matthew Carlson, who works with young farmers with the province's federation of agriculture.

People are really changing the way they eat. They want more local.- Laurie Haycock

The federation is in the midst of updating a guide book for new farmers, and is hoping to start a mentorship program in the province. The Corner Brook campus of the College of the North Atlantic will also soon be home to an agricultural technician training program, thanks to a $1.4-million provincial investment.

"The government's doing everything they can to make it easier for people to get into it, but it's a challenging job," he said.

Haycock agrees she's seen her share of challenges since beginning her foray into agriculture. But with the demand for her vegetables insatiable, she said the future for her farm is bright.

"People are really changing the way they eat. They want more local. They want to know where their food's coming from, they want to meet the farmers, and find out how you're growing the food. I think there's a really big change, and really a need for it," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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