The final installment of our three-parts eries on NL agriculture looks at how we make food security a community affair.
By Elizabeth Whitten
In the last two issues, Downhome has presented a deep look into what’s happening in our province when it comes to agriculture. We’ve met retired and new farmers, and we’ve talked to government officials and leaders in education. All of our conversations have been about our food supply.
The reality is, Newfoundland and Labrador is very food insecure. According to Statistics Canada, there are only 407 farms operating in NL today, down from the 4,000 farms of 70 years ago. Many of today’s farmers are aging out of the industry while we continue to import about 90 per cent of what we eat.
While most of us aren’t likely to quit our day jobs, buy a plot of land in the country and work the land as farmers, there are things individuals can do to help increase their own food security. In the final installment of our three-part series on agriculture, we chat withpeople who know we can grow more food for our own tables.
Putting food first
Food First NL is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing our food security and working to ensure that we have access to healthy food, says Executive Director Kristie Jameson. At their core, they deeply understand the complexity of food security. And it’s not just the fact that the vast majority of our food is imported, she notes, but also how the population is spread out over a vast area.
“The food brought in has to reach everyone, which leads to a very complex food distribution puzzle that we haven’t really figured out. So we end up seeing many communities have limited physical availability of good, quality, healthy, affordable food as a result of the fact that many of these communities don’t have full-service retailers and don’t have regular distribution to the communities,” Kristie notes.
A surprising 84 per cent of communities in NL don’t have a grocery store. However, there are corner stores, "many of them independent, family-run shops" that are the primary retailer for many communities. So residents rely on these stores for food, or they have to travel to get to the nearest supermarket, which could mean an hour’s drive or a ferry ride and then a drive, Kristie explains. So while food production is a major challenge in NL, access is also a hurdle to overcome.
Furthermore, our food transportation system is easy to disrupt. For instance, ferry runs could be cancelled unexpectedly due to bad weather or the ferry might be tied up for repairs. Maybe the weather is too poor for people to drive to the nearest store in another community. Remember when Hurricane Igor washed out roads in 2010? People couldn’t travel by road and delivery trucks couldn’t get through, Kristie recalls.
All of these factors have impact on the quality and cost of food that consumers can access. “It’s important to consider the ability for people to actually afford food, not just from considering the cost of food but also from considering the income that people have,” says Kristie.
What we have going in our favour, Kristie advises, is the strength of our traditions and our living knowledge of hunting, fishing, berrypicking and gardening. “And what’s so strong about this is that the knowledge and the skills and the practice of them still do exist here in the province today,” she says. “And I think a lot of the work we do at Food First tries to build upon those, and support groups in the province in developing and implementing programs that are really in many ways building on those strengths.”
Individually, Food First encourages people to try getting involved in food production at whatever level they feel confident, even it’s something as simple as growing a few potted herbs on a windowsill. “It’s very addictive. I think as soon as you try doing a little bit, then you’re more and more interested to take on more,” Kristie says.
Kristie also recommends cooking, preparing meals and trying to make more from scratch. It all helps people to further understand and appreciate where their food comes from and what they’re eating.
Furthermore, by getting involved in acommunity garden, individuals can help localize some of their food supply while supporting and educating each other. Food First NL has helped establish community gardens across the province. By their count there are now more than 90 community gardens in operation.
Through cooperative efforts, community organizations develop plots to farm, often in raised beds. Local residents can access these plots and grow their own food, creating opportunities for greater self-sufficiency and socializing with others as they work together for the common goal of producing food to eat.
A community garden “creates a tangible, hands-on learning mechanism of how important and how valuable farming can be to a community,” says provincial minister of Fisheries and Land Resources, Gerry Byrne, who also happens to have a small-scale farm and, by his own admission, “can’t stop talking about it.”
He says, “Growing food and growing farms and growing farmers is what Newfoundland and Labrador needs to do more of, not less.”
No yard, no problem
It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her to see Emily Bland as the “Seed-EO” of SucSeed, a thriving hydroponics company based in St. John’s. She comes from a family of farmers, and growing fresh produce has been a normal part of her life since she was a child.
SucSeed is a social enterprise that creates hydroponic systems that don’t need sunlight or soil to grow food. With a LEDlight on top of the unit acting as a sun, it can used be indoors all year round.
“It’s an enclosed ecosystem,” Emily explains. “You add water and nutrients to the bottom of the container. The water circulates through and provides the plant with the nutrients when they need them.”
The system was developed by Enactus Memorial, a student-run volunteer organization at Memorial University that leads enterprises aimed at improving quality of life. Emily was president of the team in 2016, when they worked with MUN Botanical Garden and engineering students on a hydroponic method to address food insecurity. Their original goal was to have 15 units installed and growing in northern Labrador. In just a few short years, they’ve sold more than 15,000 units across Canada.
Considering the challenges Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have in growing fresh food in our climate, Emily says of hydroponics, “It’s something I think we should have been doing and been more aware of long ago. You look back 60, 70, 80 years ago and we were producing almost all of the fresh produce that we consumed on the island,” she explains. Today, we produce around 10 per cent of the food we consume.
In addition to making, marketing and selling these hydroponic units, SucSeed is actively involved in food security education. SucSeed is currently in 400 classrooms, working with close to 8,000 students to help them learn about food sustainability. Emily says they want to be educating one million students every year by 2022. “We want to reach the next generation and empower them to grow,” she says.
After the harvest time, Emily says they get a lot of thank-you letters from kids who’ve tried kale for first time or made fresh salad from what they grew. They’re genuinely excited to eat vegetables.
“It’s great when you see kale putting a smile on a kid’s face. And then they go home and start talking to their parents about these amazing fresh tomatoes that they grew in the classroom, or lettuce and kale. In my opinion, I think it tastes better, too, when you grow it.”
Food for the table
Behind Derrick Maddocks’ St. John’s home is a lush little oasis. There are trees along the fence, a shed tucked away in the back corner, a greenhouse and carefully plotted out garden beds. It’s not a large backyard, but he’s made the most of it for the garden he’d been growing for the last 30 years. His small property produces a mouthwatering mix of fresh produce: tomatoes, peppers, onions, green onions, peas, beans, potato, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and apples.
Now retired, Derrick spends more and more time out here, typically an hour a day during the growing season. “Planting, weeding, going to the store to buy fertilizer and seeds and whatnot, pollinating tomato plants, those sorts of things,” he says.
When asked why he started growing produce, he says he’s not sure if he can answer that. As a boy, his mom had a garden, “maybe that influenced me. When we were in Labrador City, I tried to grow a few things. I just liked the real taste of what you grow yourself rather than what you buy at the store. So I guess all those things sort of combined.”
He can remember being at a Christmas party years ago, and a man told Derrick he liked to go home after the workday and build things with wood because he could see what he’d accomplished,“ and I think it’s the same thing with gardening, you know. You actually grow something that wouldn’t otherwise grow there, and you’ve got in your hands something: this is what I produced. So this sense of accomplishment is there.”
Because he lives on a small plot of land, there’s no way he could grow all the food he and his family consume. In fact,it probably doesn’t even save them money when you add in the cost of his time and all the tools, including fertilizer and soil. “I mean there’s no soil here; all the soil in the backyard is basically bought soil,” Derrick says.
However, there is almost always something on his table that came from the garden. “We have a fairly large raspberry patch and we grow a lot more raspberries then you could eat, so we freeze a lot. So over the winter I’ll be eating frozen raspberries,” he says. The menu changes with whatever crop is in season, so in the fall he’ll harvest the potatoes and carrots which will last a few months. “So you have a little something from the garden almost all year round,” Derrick says.
As of this interview in August, the strawberries are being picked. “And right now I’m eating strawberries almost to the point where I’m sick of them. But a month ago and a month from now, I’m not gonna have any… You have a season, you get it, you get overloaded with it and then it’s gone.”
While it’s not enough to keep him from going to the grocery store, it’s enough that there’s usually something on hand in the house to eat that he grew.
“It is an enjoyable pastime, it gets a person outdoors,” he says. “It’s not really food security, but if everybody did it there’d be a lot less food necessary to bring into the province. So there’s pluses to it.”
How did we get here?
Back in our grandparents’ day, people typically had a little plot of land allocated to growing at least some of the vegetables they needed to eat. Even though they weren’t full-time farmers, they still grew something. Come harvest time, they had some produce to eat throughout the year so they didn’t have to buy all of it.
If we used to have so many farmers and we were such a self-sufficient place, what happened? Food First NL’s Kristie Jameson notes that people never really stopped growing their own food or catching it, but some people did move away from it. It was probably one generation that shifted away from it.
Fortunately, enough people have grandparents alive today who’ve practiced these skills their entire lives and can share their knowledge. “And what’s been amazing is the amount of interest that there has been in people getting back involved in this work or picking up the approaches of their grandparents,” Kristie says.
Among FoodFirst’s initiatives to meet that interest is a series of videos they developed called “Scoff,” which showcased NL seniors demonstrating different traditional food skills, from cleaning cod to bottling beets. And recently, Food First launched an online map that makes it easier for consumers to find the closest available fresh food, including farmers’ markets, community gardens and food banks.
For Seed-EO Emily Bland, the issues NL is grappling with are things that can be fixed. It’s not completely out of our control. There are resources like community gardens, backyard gardens and hydroponics within our reach.
“There’s answers to a lot of the challenges that we’re facing,” she says. “We just need to take the initiative to do it and not wait another 10, 15, 20 years to fix it.”