The History and Hangups of Agricultural Efforts in NL

"The agricultural sector is shrinking; even faster here than in the rest of the country. Our mean farmer age is 55!"

The major difference between subsistence farming (for survival) and commercial farming (for profit) is “surplus” – an economic concept that would have allowed Newfoundlanders to specialize, diversify, and potentially become a little less impoverished. But alas, as we will see, growing things on a place called “The Rock” is an uphill battle.

The Commission Government (1934) initiated efforts to attack the three-pronged problem of seasonal unemployment, unstable access to produce, and the need to develop inland transportation methods, with a series of expeditions into the Newfoundland interior in search of arable land. This coincided well with the search for minerals, timber, and other economic diversifications – and yielded some (lacklustre) farming, but very tenable roads.

On the Avalon, farming was treated make-work style, and large swaths of land were given to applying settlers, to work the crown’s land in exchange for government credits that one could use at government trading establishments. One such settlement, founded by James Pearl in 1829, did quite well. It grew from a 1,000-acre estate, to a place called Mount Pearl – you may have heard of it.

However, as far as economic forces go, many of these farms were disasters. Political infighting, a lack of skills, and essentially no markets (remember this) meant that commercial farming in Newfoundland was taking the form of really expensive subsistence farming. Newfoundlanders we’re better off buying their groceries from abroad, and focusing their efforts on high-yield industries locally (see: fishery).

Fast-forward roughly a century, and the agricultural picture remains (largely) the same. A small number of large farms are operating under very tight margins and poor conditions, and a very large number of subsistence and smaller farming operations are filling in the nooks for diversity.

In Newfoundland, we actually have a higher proportion of small-scale organic farming than the rest of Canada (9.3% vs 6.8%)! Good right?

Mostly, but the agricultural sector is shrinking; even faster here than in the rest of the country. Our mean farmer age is 55! And barriers to entry are still preset – little equipment support, knowledge, and arable land. Each year our sector shrinks 1.6%, as food costs rise internationally. The solution is obvious – increase yields of small-scale farming.

The biggest issue when transitioning from subsistence purveyor to commercial is the access to sufficient marketing. Largely due to the nature of crops, but also to the very large and standardized nature of where most of us buy our groceries – Sobeys and Dominion. These markets require massive product offerings to get SKUs on the shelves. This means grass-roots alternatives must be cultivated.

We are all familiar with one such endeavor – the Farmer’s Market. This organization brings vendors and buyers together in one place at one time. The importance of that to the industry is paramount. You cannot really Kijiji a bushel of carrots.

Another option is direct selling by farmers – either through CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) or forming relationships with customers personally. CSAs are an arrangement where produce is delivered to the customer as it is ready throughout the growing season.

Lester’s farm operates its own market, from which you can purchase their produce and wealth of other products. It will be opening its doors May the 6th (stoked). The first offerings are usually brassicas family crops (turnips, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) as they are hardy to the spring cold here, and whatever takes well in early greenhouse efforts.

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1 Comment

  • Muskrat falls would have created a massive renewable energy surplus in this province, making indoor, year round produce production more than possible, but instead, we decided to sell it for cheap to other jurisdictions – oh well.

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