Newfoundland strives for food self-sufficiency

On the Farm: A producer who grows crops on The Rock has learned the hard way how his province got its name

Ian Richardson knows why Newfoundland is called The Rock.

Since moving to Cormack, N.L., about 20 years ago, Richardson has cleared about 700 acres of woodland and brought it into production.

Most of the land is now used to grow forage, but Richardson spent an uncountable number of hours removing rocks and boulders from the fields.

“We’ve been picking rocks for years and years and years…. We just brought in this huge rock picker, last year, from Finland,” he said in early May. “Our soil is rocky as all hell.”

Richardson hasn’t let a few rocks, or 50,000 rocks, get in the way of his plans.

He grew up on a cattle and hog farm in Richmond, P.E.I., northwest of Summerside. At the age of 18 he moved to Red Deer, Alta., where he worked on a hog farm for a year. Then, at 21, he left the family farm and started a dairy in Cormack, a community in the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, about 60 kilometres from Corner Brook. He would have stayed in P.E.I. but buying the land and quota for a dairy herd was too expensive. Instead, he bought 150 acres near Cormack and a herd of 60 Ayrshires.

Richardson wanted to own a dairy because of the stable income. Plus, he had been around cattle for most of his 21 years and assumed the transition to a dairy would be relatively simple.

That perception didn’t last long.

“I grew up on a beef farm and thought I knew a lot about cows. But once… I got started into the dairy, I realized I didn’t know a whole lot about cows,” he said and then laughed. “I had never milked a cow before in my life. So, it was a pretty extreme change.”

Two decades later, Richardson has 1,000 acres of farmland, milks 200 Holsteins and has a herd of 25 beef cattle.

Other aspects of Richardson’s life have also changed, as he now has three children.

Most of the farmland is used to produce alfalfa and other forages, but he has experimented with canola, wheat and barley. A Newfoundland distillery has used Richardson’s barley to make vodka, gin and aquavit, a spirit popular in Scandinavia.

Richardson produces most of the feed for his herd and a portion is shipped across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“We bring our corn in from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It’s about $140-$150 a tonne,” he said. “It’s doesn’t matter what you bring in (for feed). It’s about the same (transport cost) for everything.”

That cost is a massive burden for livestock producers in Newfoundland, who depend on imported feed to survive.

The Newfoundland government hopes to change that reliance on imported feed and food.

In 2017, the province unveiled a plan called The Way Forward on Agriculture. The goal is to increase agri-food production and double “food self-sufficiency to at least 20 percent by 2022.”

“We are well positioned… because Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province in Canada that is creating significant new farmland,” a provincial document says, outlining the plan. “We have growth potential in fruit and vegetable crops, grain production, industrial milk, berries… bees, lamb and beef.”

The government is making crown land available for agricultural development to boost acres of productive land.

Richardson fully supports the plan.

Newfoundland farming by the numbers

Based on 2016 census data, Newfoundland and Labrador had 407 farmers and 70,747 acres in farmland, most in pasture. There were 19,169 acres of cropland made up of the following:

  • 79 percent hay
  • 8.4 percent field crops
  • The remainder was vegetables, fruit, berries, sod and nurseries

The 407 farms consisted of the following types of operations:

  • 79 greenhouse and nursery
  • 78 vegetable and melons
  • 38 beef
  • 31 dairy
  • 21 poultry and eggs
  • one oilseed and grain

Source: Statistics Canada

Newfoundland farmers already produce enough milk, chicken and eggs to supply the population of The Rock, but everything else depends upon imports.

“Newfoundland only has three or four days of food in (storage) in our province at any one time,” Richardson said. “It’s a real fear. If anything shut down, anywhere else in the country, we would be out of food for people in three or four days.”

That risk is no longer hypothetical, given the realities of COVID-19.

If Newfoundland wants to become more self-sufficient, farmers will need to try new and different crops. One possibility is canola. In 2018 and 2019 a few producers in western Newfoundland grew a small amount of canola.

“Two farmers participated in the department’s canola research trials in 2018, with 35 acres planted in Cormack and 10 acres in Black Duck Siding,” a provincial representave said in an email. “In Cormack, work focused on producing canola seed and oil to replace soybean meal and palm fat — two ingredients in a cow’s diet that must be imported from outside the province — in animal feed. Canola planted on 35 acres yielded 31 tonnes of canola seed and produced 22.5 tonnes of meal.”

The farmer near Black Duck Siding cold-pressed and bottled the canola oil, which is being sold at grocery stores in the province.

“This is a long-term trial, but already in the last four years we’ve seen tremendous success (with canola),” Sabrina Ellsworth, the manager of agricultural research for the province, told the CBC.

If Newfoundland farmers can increase production of forage and feed, beef cattle could be genuine opportunity for expansion. Richardson has been crossing his Holstein herd with Simmentals or Black Angus to build a small herd of beef cattle.

The cattle are processed at a slaughter plant, only five minutes from Richardson’s farm, and the beef is sold directly to consumers.

“There’s been a huge demand… of people wanting to buy local meat. It’s probably been in the last two or three years and it’s really spiked since COVID hit,” he said. “We’ve probably had 20 or 30 new customers (in the last two months).”

“We’ve been picking rocks for years and years and years…. We just brought in this huge rock picker, last year, from Finland. Our soil is rocky as all hell.” | Ian Richardson, farmer

The pandemic could dramatically change buying habits on the island as more and more residents seek out locally produced meat.

However, increasing Newfoundland’s beef herd will not be easy. A larger herd needs more feed and more land to grow that feed. Expanding the land base for crop production is a challenge.

Richardson normally clears 20-30 acres of forest land each year, but the soil is extremely acidic.

“When we take it out of the woods, when we start fresh, it’s about 4.4 (pH),” he said

“We have to put on 10 to 15 tonnes of lime, per acre, to get it where it needs to be.”

Then there’s the weather.

In 2019, Richardson began seeding his crop May 7.

This year, in early May, there was still five centimetres of snow on the ground.

“Our (growing) seasons are so short here and we’re an island, so we never really get the hot temperatures.”

The acidic soil, the weather and the rocks are large obstacles, but Richardson is happy in Newfoundland. He loves running a dairy, he hopes to increase his beef sales and wants to be part of the solution — reducing the province’s dependence on imported food.

It will happen, he said, because farmers will get it done.

“Newfoundland has some of the most resilient people in the world. And farmers have been figuring out how to make it work for a long time.”

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