Yesterday, The Conference Board of Canada held the first ever “Newfoundland & Labrador Food Forum” at the Marine Institute. The event aimed to discuss what the future of food in Newfoundland & Labrador could or will look like. The keynote speaker was Gerry Byrne, Minister of Fisheries and Land Resources.
While the event focused largely on seafood, Byrne focused largely on agriculture. Appropriately so. The average age of farmers in this province is 55, which tell us there’s not a lot of young people entering the business of growing fresh, healthy, local food. Pair that with the fact we import 90% of the fresh fruits and veggies we eat in our province, and the future is looking full of more limp broccoli or moldy berries shipped in from halfway across the world.
With those images in mind, Byrne reaffirmed the Liberal Government’s promise to double local food production by 2022. He spoke to changes in our food system on many fronts, and how they’re driving this provincial commitment.
For example, the increasing social demand for more locally produced foods, concerns about food security, and the reality that importing our food is no longer more economically advantageous than growing it ourselves is driving the shift to increased local food production. The cost of food, and of transporting it to our province is getting worse and carbon taxing won’t help with that. “Producing food at home now makes sense, economically, and it also makes sense socially,” he said.
To double the production of local food by 2022, the plan is to double the fish farming of salmonid species from 25 to 50 metric tons, and ramp up our agricultural sector.
“What’s interesting about our province compared to others,” Byrne said, “is that in the agricultural sector of most other provinces, 25% of the entire production is supply managed goods [dairy, chicken, and eggs] and 75% is in ‘others,’ like vegetables, beef, lamb. Well, in Newfoundland & Labrador, 75% of our overall production is in supply managed goods, and only 25% in others.”
He went on to say he sees much opportunity in the latter, and alluded to plans to establish an official, federally inspected abattoir in our province for beef. This would allow for stocking of local beef in chain grocery stores, for example.
He also said that according to Stats Canada, in the last 15 years, we’ve had a 25% drop in the number of farms in our province, and that “that trend has to reverse.” To spur that reversal, he acknowledged we must “pay special attention” to making farming an attractive business venture for new entrants, including the removal of financial and policy-related barriers to farming.
To that end, the province has identified just over 62,000 hectares of agricultural land which will be made available to farmers, both existing and new. In addition, they’ve launched a promising initiative in Reidville aimed at helping new farmers. Instead of just offering land, they offered land that was prepped and ready to start farming this spring.
For this land in Reidville, they received and vetted applications from new farmers, and ultimately chose two young farmers, partners, who had good experience but were not yet farm owners. Byrne says they plan to emulate and replicate this pilot project.
At the food forum he also announced the return of, and changes to the Provincial Agrifoods Assistance Program. The program has about 3 million dollars earmarked for projects that support community food self-sufficiency, increase agricultural growth, increase secondary processing, and generate employment.
Formerly, it was a program for established farmers only. Farmers needed a certain number of farmgate receipts to be eligible. Now, it’s open to new entrants.
If we’re lucky, programs like this, and the NL Young Farmers Forum mentorship program, will turn things around for food production and food security in NL.
Byrne is certainly hopeful. He ended his keynote speech citing our strong new relationship with the federal government, and says the partnership aligns our and their vision of more large scale agricultural projects in Canada/NL, and alluded to enabling more secondary processing of dairy products in our province.
“Every year we produce about 45 million liters of milk,” he said. “30 million for domestic consumption, 15 million for export. That’s not a bad thing. What would be better is if we had secondary processing here in Newfoundland & Labrador.” Secondary dairy products include things like cheese, butter, and yogurt. He says government is working with dairy farmers on opportunities they can assist farmers with investing in.
There is also talk of government assisting the agricultural industry with investments in cold storage facilities that would allow farmers to keep their fall harvests fresh (and available for sale) for longer periods of time — like industrial sized root cellars.
Farm kid turned townie, here.
While I think it’s pretty optimistic to believe that we’re going to have any sort of functioning beef industry (that takes a LOT of grain that we’ll have to import under those new carbon pricing rules because it’s not happening here) I am really glad that they’re focusing on mentorship with this initiative.
There’s the nice idea that anyone can move to the country and become a farmer, but the reality is that most people who do it successfully were essentially bred into it, through growing up on a farm and learning the lifetime of skills that it takes over the course of, well, a lifetime.
To be a farmer who can stay afloat, you need to be able to do so many things without having to pay someone for services…everything from veterinary work and agronomy, to machine and mechanical repair, to plumbing and electrical. These days you also need to add a comfort with technology, understanding of financial markets, and more and more, a willingness to explore innovation. If you’re relying on someone else, you won’t be able to be profitable. My dad has literally been able to fix a truck since he was about 8 years old, and he learned it through osmosis and experience.
Anyhow, this is a really long way of saying that the experience of our existing producers is like gold. Learning from the internet won’t cut it. Finding ways to make deep connections between old farmers and new folks with an interest in it is so important. Also, there is so much value in programs that let youth work on an operation while also doing some college or vocation ag training. You can’t jump into farming without shovelling a bit of shit, I’m afraid, but you’ll learn a ton that reading could never ever teach.
I also think we need to take some of the pie in the sky romance stuff out of our impression of farming if it’s going to be successfull here (especially in terms of lessening our reliance on imports.) Heading out to the west coast with a banjo and a plan to grow hops for craft breweries isn’t a realistic view of agriculture in the 21st century.
In addition, we’ve got some misperceptions about who young farmers actually are. Today, farming is not just a career for a hippy who would rather tune out and collect eggs all day. I’ve got cousins who are running farms that are using big data, stats, and technology, along with all of the elements that have always been associated with ag, and who are loving the challenges that those new developments bring. It’s an industry for people who are interested in making change, using technology, and solving big local/global problems. They’re producing food while using new products and approaches that are more sustainable and more productive than ever before.
Well, that’s my farming rant…