Six years and as many setbacks later, Mark Wilson finally has his hands on some land.
The burgeoning organic farmer and his three green business associates will soon conclude the agreement process of leasing a five-acre parcel of land between Portugal Cove and St. John’s.
It’s a bittersweet deal for Wilson, who originally hoped for a 30-acre lot.
“We lost about 83% of the land we applied for that the province wanted to give us.”
“We lost about 83% of the land we applied for that the province wanted to give us, because of the City of St. John’s not allowing us to operate within the watershed.”
Wilson fought the city council’s decision in 2010, arguing that runoff from an organic farm, free of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides and all things unnatural, wouldn’t impact the quality of St. John’s drinking water, which drains from nearby Windsor Lake. But the city stood firm, refusing to gamble with the water system, no matter how safe the farmers’ plans.
Downsides of the downsize
The 5-acre section of farmland he’s acquiring from the province’s Agrifoods division sits just outside the invisible lines of the Windsor lake watershed.
Wilson says the cut from 30 acres down to 5 drastically changes his game plan, mainly in terms of how much they can produce. He’s confident the amount of land will be sufficient for the first two or three years of production, but foresees when it comes time to expand the business they won’t have the land base to be able.
“It’s going to be okay,” he assures himself for a second. “That’s a good sized garden… but there are four of us out there farming. It’s going to be hard to get production as high as we want it to be, to support the business and keep the farm going.”
Life on land
Wilson, 36, grew up on a farm in Ontario where his family tended vegetables and hay crops, raised sheep, goats and chickens. It was after studying biology in university that he felt compelled to “return to [his] roots.”
“When you’re renting you’re basically paying to improve someone else’s land.”
“Organic fell into place in order to appease my ecological training and use my knowledge to grow food,” is how he puts it.
Upon moving to Newfoundland, Wilson began renting farmland on the Avalon Peninsula in 2005. But he quickly realized he’d need long-term ownership of the land in order to get back the time and money put into it.
“When you’re farming you put so much effort into making the soil have the nutrients it needs in order to grow food — the inputs become a high percentage of what you’re doing,” he says. “When you’re renting you’re basically paying to improve someone else’s land, and if you can’t access that for a long term you just can’t afford to farm.
Roughly $4 per year is what Wilson will be paying for each of the 5 acres of land he’s agreed to lease.
The deal came about through the province’s Land Consolidation Program, put in place to provide an opportunity for non-farm landowners and retiring farmers to sell land to the government who then make it available to existing commercial farmers, part-time farmers or new entrants interested in commercial farming who are in need of additional land.
“We’re getting this land for really cheap,” Wilson is quick to admit. “No one would ever be able to buy land for as cheap as we’re getting it — $20 a year for lease of Crown Land… The availability of that kind of land is really minimal.”
So far it’s only been verbally approved by Agrifoods and it has to go through a committee still for final approval. Meanwhile, Wilson has already taken to the land to start construction of a barn and to tack up a No Trespassing sign.
Growing a new generation of commercial farmers
Wilson says he’s become aware of other farmers, through the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network, who are looking to find land to farm but would have to rent in order to make a start.
He urges the province to introduce a new plan to attract a younger generation of farmers like himself into the commercial fold.
“They need policy that’s directed towards smaller farms and they need policy that tackles the issue of new entrants in farming.”
“With an average age of 58 it’s a good time to think toward the future,” he says. “Agrifoods has been incredibly helpful but they don’t have enough in terms of policy to help people that are in the same stage as I was. They need policy that’s directed towards smaller farms and they need policy that tackles the issue of new entrants in farming. They have some funding for new entrants but most is for established farmers.”
Wilson has so far been relying heavily on the good will of friends and other farmers in the area. He counts himself as lucky he’s able to borrow what he’s not able to buy yet. This week he plans to borrow a tractor to start plowing the land.
Standing on the green grass of the vacant field, Wilson insists that, despite the setbacks, he’s happy for the time being he can finally dig into land of his own.
“I’m not happy that it’s taken this long and I’m not happy that the best part of the land we were offered from the province, we didn’t get. I am happy, but I want more — I’m still hungry.”