Nfld. & Labrador

N.L.'s greenhouse, veggie program welcomed, but not without a few critiques

The provincial government's decision to build greenhouses on the west coast is being met with support, although some in the industry say it's just one piece of the food production puzzle.

$1M going toward building 7 greenhouses on west coast

These are greenhouses at the Centre for Agriculture and Forestry Development in Wooddale, some of which are used to grow vegetable transplants for farmers. (Leigh Anne Power/CBC)

A provincial government project to build greenhouses on the west coast of Newfoundland is being met with general support from farmers, although some question whether that cash would be better used elsewhere.

The government is spending $1 million to build seven new greenhouses at a complex at the province's agricultural centre at Pynn's Brook, part of a $13-million package announced last week from a COVID-19 economic recovery fund. The cash will go toward some research, but will mainly be used to expand the province's vegetable transplant program, which sells greenhouse-grown veggies at the start of season to farmers at cost.

That's welcome news to Louis MacDonald, who co-owns the greenhouse operation Growing For Life in Black Duck Siding, near Stephenville.

"I think it sends a good message, because it lets us know that the government is working in tandem with industry to promote agriculture," he told CBC News, as he was driving back to his farm with a load of government-purchased cabbage, turnip and onion seedlings.

"We're quite happy that we're doing this, because it saves us the time and the energy and we know they're doing it right," he said. 

Those transplants will go into the ground for his seasonal field crop side of the business, but MacDonald's three greenhouses grow tomatoes year-round, and he sees the provincial greenhouse expansion as a boost to his fledgling industry.

"Other countries with cold climates are doing it, there's no reason we can't do it," he said.

The province began the transplant program three years ago and has been rapidly expanding it ever since out of its base in Wooddale. Last year 1.7 million transplants were sold to farmers, and in 2020 that has grown to 3 million.

Tomatoes grow in one of the Growing For Life greenhouses in Black Duck Siding, and will be sold at Coleman's and Co-op stores. (Submitted by Louis MacDonald)

Public competing with private?

One farmer worries that rapid expansion could create a surplus a few months down the road, and drive prices down.

"Unfortunately if everything is ready the same time, it does create a market glut," said Jim Lester, co-owner of Lester's Farm Chalets in St. John's and a Progressive Conservative MHA.

The province is spending $1 million to create shared cold storage spaces, although that process is unlikely to be ready for September.

Lester availed of the transplant program last year, and says it is a good initiative, despite his being ineligible in 2020, as his farm was the only one that didn't comply with all the regulations and plant all the transplants in 2019.

While the transplant program is meant to boost food production, Lester said he's not sure that's been the main effect.

"Largely what it's done is replace the plants that a farmer would produce on his or her own property," he said, adding that that still has value as a springtime work saver.

"If some duties could be delegated off to another reliable source, it does make a farmer's life easier."

Lester's main concern is whether the province should be expanding further into the greenhouse game, saying the initial cost of construction will then create ongoing upkeep expenses.

"It always raises, I guess, an element of caution and an element of concern, whenever we see the government, any government or any administration, utilizing funds that quite possible should be in the hands of the primary producers, to expand their own operations," he said.

Farmer and opposition MHA Jim Lester questions whether the province should be moving further into the greenhouse business. (CBC)

Kim Thistle, who has run a greenhouse and nursery business in Little Rapids for more than 20 years, also welcomed a greater government push for food production. 

But she questioned the need to create greenhouse space for research purposes, when there's a wide pool of local agricultural knowledge in the private sector.

"I'm not sure what sort of research they're doing, but Newfoundlanders have a long history of growing their own food. We know what grows here. Farmers know what grows here, domestic gardeners know what grows here," she said.

Some of that research will be done by Grenfell Campus and the College of the North Atlantic, said Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne, but the focus will be on the transplant program.

He said the greenhouses are set to be ready for the start of the 2021 growing season.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning

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