Agriculture in Labrador has always been a bit of a hard go. While there is a huge amount of agricultural land in the region — far more than on the island portion of the province — the vast majority of it is uncleared and even getting access to some of it could take years.
There is a bright side, though. In recent years, a few new farms have popped up and one is even planning to sell local beef.
Food insecurity is a big issue in Labrador, with high prices and the area only producing one per cent of the food it consumes.
The provincial government created a work sector plan for agriculture in the last few years and highlighted some concerns producers are having in Labrador, including the lack of an abattoir or the ability to sell large-scale commercial eggs in the region and the need for more Crown land to be made available for agriculture.
On Nature’s Best Farm, Desmond Sellars has been growing produce such as carrots and potatoes in the region for about 20 years. He is a familiar face to many in Happy Valley-Goose Bay as the guy who sells vegetables in front of the courthouse,
There is a huge amount of opportunity for farmers in Labrador, according to Sellars, but he feels the industry is still in its infancy stage and 'requires a lot of zeroes in your bank account.’
“Farmers here in Labrador can produce more but it always comes down to policy around agriculture. There’s no question about the soil, there’s no question about the land being able to produce, but we do not have the right policy and the right supports at the present time to support increased agriculture here in Labrador.”
Des Sellars with some of the crops he grows in central Labrador.
Things are moving in the right direction, he said, with the province recognizing the need for more locally produced food, but agriculture is a long game and that’s even more true in Labrador.
It can take years to get leased land from the government, he said, and that’s just the first hurdle. Since all agricultural land in Labrador is leased, not granted, farmers don’t have access to any capital from it to go to banks, and so have to invest a lot of their own money up front. Even then, he said, the province still owns it and when a farmer retires, all the investments they made on the land can be lost.
Freight costs are another barrier, he said. It costs just as much to ship things sometimes as the items themselves. That drives up his cost, which is a barrier to selling his produce to local stores. It’s cheaper for local stores in bring in food from outside the province than buy from him, he said, and that needs to be addressed.
“Farmers don’t need a handout, they need a hand up,” he said. ‘If I could, for example, be able to expense freight on a subsidy basis I could compete with P.E.I., Ontario, New Brunswick, and I’d have that market, I know I would. That wouldn’t be a terrible cost to anyone, but it would be a big step for producers.”
At the end of the day, he said, young people need to see that agriculture is something worthwhile to pursue and he doesn’t see a lot of that messaging out there. While farming is a long-term investment because of the large upfront capital costs, he said, it can be very profitable and there need to be more conversations around that.
“The whole notion of farming as an important, viable business for this province and for people to engage in, there aren’t enough conversations around that. Farming is an underdeveloped part of this province, that’s self-evident. For that to change it requires ongoing conversations and I would argue some policy changes. “
Jim Purdy is one of the operators of Birch Lane Farm on Mud Lake Road in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which produces a wide variety of products, from produce to live chickens and live ducks to berries and jams.
Purdy highlighted some of the same issues as Sellars, especially around the impact of freight costs and getting Crown land.
“Our biggest competition isn’t here, it’s in Quebec and Ontario. They can sell their product cheaper here than we can produce it for. We have to depend on the local market, loyalty, to sell our products.”
Purdy said people do recognize that locally grown food tastes better, but producers need to move into larger commercial markets to be able to grow and that isn’t possible right now. Other provinces have programs to assist with that, he said, and something needs to be done in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Things that aren’t issues in less remote places, he said, like getting a tractor fixed or hiring someone to clear land, can be a real barrier in Labrador.
“I would say that there’s less than 200 acres of cleared agricultural land in Labrador and in some places that’s a small farm,” he said. “It’s not like you can call someone and get them to do it. We don’t have the infrastructure here for agriculture, it’s as simple as that.”
He said in his opinion other provinces have done a lot more to help with agricultural production and it doesn’t seem to be a priority for the government in Newfoundland and Labrador. Much like Sellars, Purdy cites the rules around Crown land and the unwillingness of government to grant it to farmers.
“They can but they won’t,” he said. “It took me a few years to get a lease and that was on land no one else wanted. Can you imagine how long it would take if someone else had wanted it? I don’t know why the process takes so long but it isn’t helping anything. If you want to farm here, you better be ready for a long investment,” he said.
When asked what could be done to help the industry grow Purdy said he didn’t even know where to start, but government offering more support is a big part of it.
Access to land important
When SaltWire Network contacted Fisheries, Forestry, and Agriculture Minister Elvis Loveless, who was given the portfolio three months ago, he said he hasn’t had a chance go to Labrador to meet with local producers yet and discuss the issues, but he’s committed to doing so.
Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture Minister Elvis Loveless said he's committed to meeting with producers in Labrador to discuss their issues.
“Our goal, in terms of helping farmers, is opening up access to land,” Loveless said when asked about the concerns expressed over the inability to get granted agricultural land.
“Farmers, in order to grow vegetables, or just around the culture of growing, need land, there’s no doubt. I won’t make a commitment on a timeframe, but I will commit to talking to farmers. I’m looking to get on the ground in Labrador and have those conversations with them; what are their priorities moving their industry forward in Labrador?”
Loveless said in terms of issues, it’s “all on the table.”
He referenced recent investments made by the provincial government in the central Labrador region for community gardens and a cold storage and packaging facility in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and said there are plans to make more agricultural land available in the region.
“Having access to safe and healthy food is on everyone’s minds, and addressing those needs has never been more important than right now, especially in Labrador, where the residents rely heavily on food imported from other areas, and that’s something we’d like to change.”
Tomorrow: a new beef farm is the only one of its kind in Labrador.
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