Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

I'm a young, passionate farmer, and it seems the system is designed for me to fail

Governments are quick to say they support local farmers … but is that really true? Chris Bruce, who farms in the Codroy Valley, says there's a long list of obstacles that can get in a young farmer's way.

Governments say they support local farmers. The evidence tells me something different

Chris Bruce operates a farm in the Codroy Valley in western Newfoundland. He says there are too many obstacles in the way of small, independent farms. (Submitted by Chris Bruce)

This column is an opinion by Chris Bruce, a farmer in western Newfoundland's Codroy Valley. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

With soaring costs of fuel, feed and fertilizer, there is no doubt that farmers in Newfoundland and Labrador are having a hard time, and the government should do whatever possible to keep farms in the province afloat.

We simply cannot afford to have any more farms close.

However, when we look at the plight of large industrial farms in the province, it has to be understood that this crisis was predictable.

There is a notion that farms pull plants from the ground, or keep animals on that land, and bring them to the market.

This was once true, and inputs to that farm were minimal. Now, however, that picture isn't quite the same.

On the largest farms in the province — which still remain relatively small, compared to the rest of the country — inputs include pesticides, fungicides, fertilizer, seed and lime. It all requires massive pieces of equipment. None of these mega-tractors are built in the province of course, and their repair and maintenance requires access to a supply chain that likely spans several continents.

I cannot begin to express how little our province cares about small farms.

Some feed inputs come from the province in the form of grains, corn, and fish offal. The rest comes from either away, or far away.

Local wholesalers, mechanics and retailers do great around farms. The majority of the annual spring investments go to big companies that have little to nothing to do with Newfoundland.

Even the biggest farms are over a barrel from bigger companies. And this is how it's supposed to be.

Wait. This is how it's meant to be?

As a small farmer (from a long line of traditional farmers in the Codroy Valley), much of this seems like madness to me.

Crop rotation isn't mandatory and has been exchanged for a suite of field treatments of fertilizers and various bug and plant poisons to prolong activity.

A truck hauling kelp onto a shared family plot, 'almost like Grandpa used to do,' Chris Bruce says. (Submitted by Chris Bruce)

But let's say the big guy does his thing. Surely small food producers are just as valued, and allowed to engage in the market?

I cannot begin to express how little our province cares about small farms.

There are many, many examples of small-scale food producers being ignored or having their commerce outright criminalized. That may sound alarmist, but this is the nature of how our province has enforced the quota system.

Let's say you want to raise chickens on a medium-sized plot of land.

You might think, "Hey, Newfoundlanders are the chicken-wing-eatingest province in the country, I should raise chickens." You would be allowed to, but you'd only ever be allowed to have 99 without disrupting the quota system.

There is a single player on our market, Country Ribbon, and it's not owned by Newfoundland farmers but an ag company out of Nova Scotia. They are who you have to ask if you want to raise more than 99 chickens, and they, uh… they won't say yes.

It may sound bogus, but yes, a private company from Nova Scotia gets to decide who else enters the market they have full control over. And they have figuratively received buckets of cash from our government.

A chicken or egg scenario

Let's say you live it up and raise your 99 chickens, and somehow manage to sell them at $25 a bird (good for you). You've made $2,475 before expenses. You also… can't slaughter it yourself. Or even pay to have someone come to your land and do it, even if you're doing one a day under the most sterile conditions. It doesn't matter, no on-farm slaughter.

But don't worry, the province says it supports small farmers.

OK, so you lost your shirt in the chicken meat market. So you say eggs! Everyone eats breakfast.

Getting into the egg business is far from easy, Chris Bruce argues, because of restrictions that limit what small farmers are allowed to sell. (Caitlin Taylor/CBC)

It's still a low number, and the eggs are ironically not all in one basket (multiple egg entities exist), but even 99 healthy layers means you'll have hundreds of eggs a week. Such a good problem! That's enough eggs to justify scaling up a little and cutting a deal with a local corner store.

But. You. Can't.

Well, you could … but you'd need to go through an industrial amount of extra work in order to comply with food standards set for factory-farmed eggs. Your meagre profits would be dashed, and the wishbone would come up short.

Small egg farms are prohibited from selling anywhere other than a local farmers' market or what's called the farmer's gate. This means your eggs could be sold from the farm, or you can bring the eggs two towns over to a farmers' market and sell out, but the locally owned corner store would be fined if they sell them.

And our food enforcement folks are willing to enforce these laws.

There are things we can do

The net of food laws we have made is tangly and, frankly, quite sad. Top to bottom, our governments and industry have more or less set things up this way.

Quota holders are routinely recipients of massive government subsidies, along with their truly unheard of market control on production and price. Agricultural colleges and lobbying firms are tied in deeply to conventional chemical agriculture, and provincial and federal governments have funded it for years.

The sun sets on Bruce family land overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Submitted by Chris Bruce )

Farms are becoming fewer and larger, and increasingly foreign owned.

I don't want anyone to lose their farm. I also don't want us to keep funding a system that never really made sense.

As a small farmer who has been told "no" by the province while asking to raise food, because I asked for too many chickens once upon a time, I can tell you we have much bigger problems than the price of fuel.

The province could do a lot without spending any more money (though… they should spend more money on farmers).

Open up the bottom end of the quota system to allow for small farms to operate. Mandate crop rotation. Get cows and chickens out of barns for their entire lives.

Support mixed production farms that don't waste the nutrients of the soil. Let corner stores function as farmers' markets. Stop wasting small farmers' time and energy with red tape.

Do it for the bees, or something.

We needed to act 10 years ago, so we may as well act now.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Chris Bruce

Freelance contributor

Chris Bruce is a farmer and comedian living in Searston, in the Codroy Valley in western Newfoundland.

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