For as long as I can remember, whenever my mom visits her sister in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland and Labrador, she often comes back with a bag filled with some type of root vegetable, typically potatoes. They’ve never seen the inside of a grocery store and sometimes they still have a bit of soil clinging to them, which washes away easily enough before being cooked up for Sunday dinner.
We call them “Jim’s Potatoes,” after my uncle Jim Ade, a farmer from a long line of farmers. He’s lived his whole life on this one plot of land that’s been in his family for generations.
While Jim’s retired now, there’s still plenty to keep him busy. Before he even sits down for his own breakfast, he heads out to feed the hens. “Around a farm, there’s always something to do. Always. There’s never nothing to do,” he says, whether it’s animals and crops to care for or equipment to repair. “And the way it is on a farm, small farms like this, you were a jack-of-all-trades; you had to be able to try to fix stuff yourself.”
Jim adds, “People will say, ‘Ah, you’re working on your own, do what’cha like, when you like.’ But it don’t work like that. What you don’t do today gotta be done tomorrow, and then you’re behind!”
Not only did he grow vegetables, he’d also buy cattle to butcher and sell the meat to people in the nearby city. It was common practice back in the day, when men like him were called “hawkers.” They’d have regular customers and would drop off a delivery of cut-up meat and vegetables once a week, all year-round. Once they ran out of veggies in the winter, it would just be the meat. “It’s how they made a living out here,” Jim says.
“I never ever minded killing cattle or anything like that; that was no work. And if you like something, as you know, it’s not work. If you don’t like it, it is the hardest work. So that’s the way it was with me anyway… I was a pretty lucky fella that way.”
These days, Jim works a very small bit of land and it’s changed over the years. Trees have taken over the field where cattle used to roam and graze. Some of the best farmland in eastern Newfoundland, in Kilbride and the Goulds, has been turned over to housing. “It’s all built up now, pretty well,” Jim says. “Jeez, you wouldn’t know it; it’s all subdivisions everywhere.” And it kind of flies in the face of current concerns around food security. “That’s all they’re talking about now, every time you pick up a paper, pretty well: try to be a little bit self-sufficient in the production of food. And I mean, then you go along and you’ll see the best farm area in a place being all built up!”
But you can’t really blame property owners for selling quality farmland if they’re not farmers. After all, if you inherit 15 acres but you don’t farm, what do you do with it? Jim asks. In an ideal world, that land would be bought by an interested farmer, but farmers don’t typically have that kind of money. Still, it’d be nice to see that land protected or some sort of government buy-back program to ensure that valuable land isn’t gobbled up by houses.
There’s also the looming issue of the aging population of farmers, and in Jim’s area he mostly only knows older men about to retire. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the number of farms in Newfoundland and Labrador decreased 20.2 per cent between 2011 and 2016, which was the biggest recorded drop in the country. But it’s not all bad news: while there are fewer farms overall, the report notes there are more women getting into farming.
It’s not easy to get a young person to give up an urban life or office work to go farming when they’re used to money coming in all the time, Jim says. There’s unpredictability in farming. “You could set the crop the year and Jesus, it don’t come every year. Everything don’t work the same every year,” he says, adding if you have a family to support, what can you do? “You’ve got to be kinda cut out for it or geared up for it. There’s no guarantees with it. But it’s a great way of life if you like it.”
Forging Food Attitudes
Along Brookfield Road, about where St. John’s meets Mount Pearl and just a stone’s throw away from the busy road, are fields of green and swaths of earth covered in plastic sheets protecting the growing plants beneath, and long stretches of massive greenhouses.
This is Lester’s Farm Market. The Lester family has been providing food to the province for more than 160 years, making Susan Lester a sixth generation farmer. While she did work in other industries for a time, she eventually returned to the farm to continue the Lester legacy.
She is also chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Young Farmers Forum (NLYFF), helping young farmers connect to discuss common issues, as well as forge a sustainable agricultural industry and promote food self-sufficiency in the province.
“There’s not one right way or wrong way; there’s many different avenues for farming. So it’s very important to have constant learning opportunities,” Susan says.
Throughout the year NLYFF hosts conferences and workshops. It’s a great resource for young farmers because while people can look up things online, the information won’t necessarily be right for Newfoundland and Labrador’s conditions,
cautions Susan. For instance, they recently had a workshop on NL soil conditions.
Membership is open to people between the ages of 18 and 40 who are actively farming and gardening as their livelihood. You’ll get people whose family goes back generations in farming meeting with newcomers, along with those who are interested in farming and are now making
the transition, she says. All across Canada there are chapters of Young Farmers Forums, so farmers in this province are also able to network across the country.
The average age of a farmer in NL is around 55, which is a concerning number because as these people get ready to retire there aren’t the same number of farmers taking up those posts. The NLYFF reaches out to those who could be or want to be the next generation of farmers in this province.
Making the shift from office job to farmer can be a big adjustment and it’s not for everyone, Susan cautions. “It’s a full commitment. It’s not just physical labour, it’s mental labour. There’s more to it than just one task. Everything is kind of like a domino effect.” Susan explains, if you’re not good at seeding or don’t properly water your fields, that means you won’t have a good crop.
“I guess a lot of people are starting to… realize this can be their lifestyle. And it’s not just a job �" it really is a lifestyle. It’s not a nine to five. There’s crops out there, there’s animals out there, you’re up early hours and late hours at night with the animals, putting in the irrigation system for the frost, so it’s very unique and diverse of what you do each day. And some people, that’s what they want. They don’t want the same thing day in and day out. In farming, no day is the same, for sure.”
Farming is a profession where people need to be willing to constantly learn, adapt and grow, and Susan has some advice for those interested in becoming farmers: “I would defi-nitely say, never get discouraged. Farming is hard work.”
There will be years where you do everything right, and for whatever reasons, it still fails, “It’s really important to never get discouraged and never base your next season on your past season’s failure. Because if you did that, you wouldn’t get very far. If we did that, we probably would have stopped back 30 years ago or even more.”
A Fresh Face in Farming
Right now, looking down at her field in Conception Bay South, Trina Porter has what she calls a grocery store in the ground. At her farm, she grows celery, cilantro, parsley, “real turnip” (different from rutabaga, which she also grows), as well as rhubarb, bok choy, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, three varieties of winter squash, plenty of root vegetables and cabbage; basically, “whatever you put into your Jiggs dinner,” she adds.
With three hectares to work with, she has to plant every portion of her land. So between rows of cabbages, lettuce heads are popping up; nestled among the bok choy are radishes. This kind of intensive farming helps deal with pests and weed problems. After all, if the space is already filled with vegetables, there’s no place for weeds to get in and cause trouble.
Trina’s a first generation commercial farmer (her great-grandfather farmed, but the two never met). When she was growing up, her fam-ily, like many, had a carrot patch and grew some potatoes, but just enough to feed themselves and their immediate family. The land she farms now has been in her family for several decades, something she considers fortunate, as buying that much land today would be very expensive. Cost is another reason she was motivated to farm her own food. She’s a vegetarian and fresh vegetables can get costly at the supermarket. It made sense to grow what she could, “And then it turned out that I could grow an awful lot.”
The idea for a farm started a few years ago with a greenhouse Trina shared with her parents. Initially, her crop of choice was tomatoes. They grew so many and so well that they had too many for them to eat, so
they thought maybe they could make a business out of it. That was back in the fall of 2017. The next year marked their first commercial season, and now Trina and her parents operate the Foxtrap Access Road Market (FARM). They also run a Community Shared Agriculture program where members sign up and get a regular bag of produce throughout the year, depending on what’s in season - similar to what Jim Ade did on his farm for years.
Farming is a profession that requires long hours and it’s not for the faint of heart, Trina says.
“If you put it on paper how many hours you work, it sounds absolutely ridiculous. And it’s hard to capture, too, what we get out of it because it’s a bit of a hobby gone wrong,” she says. “So when people ask me what do I do in my spare time, I’m like, ‘I garden?’ It’s my hobby, it’s my work, it’s my relaxation and then it’s also putting food on my own plate.” And Trina doesn’t mean that figuratively through the income it brings in - the food she gardens ends up on her plate.
Working with the earth was pretty far from her expectations for the future when she started her masters in political science two years ago. “No, this was not in the plan. It was really at the time how I managed my stress from being in a masters program. I was going out to the greenhouse to just clear my mind and just loved it a little too much, I guess.”
While it’s a commonly repeated refrain that growing anything on “The Rock” is a Herculean task, Trina’s more optimistic: “There’s so much to be done here, and if you have the privilege to have a greenhouse, it’s even more so.”
People assume that to grow tomatoes here, it must be done inside the protective embrace of a greenhouse, but Trina plants her 200 tomato plants outside.
Trina would love to see more people growing what they can in their backyards, even if it wasn’t with the goal to become completely self-sufficient. Imagine being able to go into the backyard and grab a bit of lettuce and a fresh tomato for your burger?
Currently, Newfoundland and Labrador ships in 90 per cent of the food we consume, and that needs to change. There have been times in recent years that bad weather has kept the boats from getting into our ports and as a result, grocery store shelves went empty. With climate change, we’re told to expect more severe weather more often, so here we can expect shipping delays to increase.
“We need a lot more food than what we’re able to produce each year, whether that’s vegetable food, animal food, whatever it may be. So the more people [farming], the better,” Susan stresses.
And Susan’s seen a shift in attitude when it comes to food in the last decade. People want to have a connection to their food and know where it’s coming from. There’s also been a surge of people interested in growing their own food. These are probably all factors that have appealed to the newer generation of farmers.
Like Susan, Trina’s also seen a hunger for locally grown food. People don’t want food that’s been shipped from one end of the country, loaded onto a boat and driven across the province before it finally makes its way onto the shelf of a grocery store.
Not only is local better for our economy and the environment, “it has such a different taste, too,” she says. Trina says she knows people who won’t eat a tomato at all in the winter because they only eat local tomatoes and say that grocery store ones just don’t cut it anymore.
From Trina’s experience selling fresh produce, the demand for local is booming. She regularly goes to the CBS Market and has a stall at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market where she sells veggies, herbs, seedlings and potted plants. “By the end of the day, if you come too late in the day… you won’t get fresh produce at the Farmers’ Market because I just simply don’t have enough.” And for a farmer doing business, that’s a good thing.
-by Elizabeth Whitten