Popularity of local food production on the rise in NL

From Facebook groups to farmers’ markets and community gardens to communal food-sharing programs — the writing’s in the dirt: food security is an important idea and a priority for people all over Newfoundland and Labrador.

It’s some shocking. Newfoundland and Labrador imports 90 per cent of its produce, which means Newfoundlanders and Labradorians aren’t surviving on their own without outside help from national and international agricultural industries.

But as we’ve seen in recent years and months at home and around the world, industries and economies fluctuate and crumble. And just as the sea ice between the mainland and the Island has no regard for Newfoundlanders’ ability to stock their grocery store shelves, neither is the ‘free market’ the best supplier of fresh food to Labrador communities.

So why don’t we produce more of our own food? It’s a question a growing number of people around the province are asking. And it’s a question more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are answering.

According to Kristie Jameson of the Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador (FSN), interest in food security has been “consistently growing” over the past five or six years, “whether that’s people just becoming more interested in learning about growing food or where food comes from and becoming more invested in buying local food, to people that are more interested in talking big-picture about some of the issues we face in the province around food security.”

In an interview with The Independent on Thursday, Jameson said the FSN is seeing more interest from community organizations around the province in starting up various food programs like community gardens, farmers’ markets and bulk-buying clubs.

“I think five or six years ago there was one farmers’ market and now I think there’s close to 10 that exist in the province,” she said. “I don’t even know the number of community gardens that exist now but there’s been an incredible growth in those numbers.”

The local food production and food security movement isn’t just a rural thing, either. St. John’s-based groups like FEASt (Food Education Action St. John’s) have been doing community outreach with people in the capital city, offering workshops and other forms of support on things like container gardening, seed-saving and composting.

There are two big reasons why people should be interested in food security in St. John’s and around the province, according to FEASt member Angela Heffernan.

“Climate change and what’s going to happen in the next few years is one thing I think should spark people to get more active and interested in becoming more self-sufficient,” she said. “And the other thing is that we import most of our food but we only have I think it’s three, maybe five, days’ worth of fresh food to sustain us if our food supply gets cut off. That’s what we see here in the winter when the ferries are iced in or it’s too windy for days on end.

“Don’t assume everything’s going to be in the supermarket forever.”

Heffernan said one of the biggest challenges to developing a secure food system in the province is the perception that it’s difficult to grow fruits and vegetables here.

The community garden in Riverhead, St. Mary's Bay. Facebook photo: Food Security Network NL.
The community garden in Riverhead, St. Mary’s Bay. Facebook photo: Food Security Network NL.

“Everyone says Newfoundland weather is not good for growing stuff, but it’s not that bad,” she said. “There’s lots of stuff that can grow here, and there’s lots of initiatives where people are trying to do little tricks and things to extend the growing season…and overwintering and starting things really early and protecting them. So there’s lots of potential, even though sometimes in our spring we might think we’ll never see the sun again,” she laughed. “But things still grow.”

Heffernan said she would also like to see more support from communities and all levels of government in developing a safe and sustainable small-to-medium-scale organic agriculture industry in the province.

“A lot of the farmers we do have are getting very old, and if they don’t have a succession person their farms might just go fallow. It would be nice to see that as an industry that gets a bit of attention from an investment perspective and motivation perspective, because it’s a good job for a long time.”

There are indications that local interest in growing food spans across generations. Jackson McLean, a 25-year-old young professional living in St. John’s, started a Facebook group a few months ago for people in the province interested in growing produce in their yards.

The group, Backyard Vegetable Farmers NL, currently has more than 730 members and has provided a forum for people to ask questions and share experiences with growing their own fruits and vegetables in Newfoundland and Labrador.

 There’s lots of potential, even though sometimes in our spring we might think we’ll never see the sun again. But things still grow.  — Angela Heffernan, FEASt

McLean works for The Seed Company (formerly Gaze Seeds) in St. John’s, but said he started the Facebook group equally out of personal interest.

“I just started at The Seed Company, so I’m really getting immersed and I’m able to answer a lot of people’s questions based on the products we have in store,” he said. “The bigger the movement gets the more people are going to be stopping by the store, so that’s good for everybody.”

McLean said he’s happy to see experienced backyard farmers outside St. John’s joining the group and sharing their knowledge about growing food in Newfoundland with people new to food production.

“There’s a lot of older people from around the bay who have joined, which I think is great, to get those experienced growers in there — they’re the ones whose families have been growing for generations and they can teach us townies a thing or two.”

Another group, Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL, spawned from McLean’s, this one geared toward not just vegetable growing but animal husbandry, foraging, making preserves and all things homesteading. It is moderated by Lisa and Steve McBride, authors of the bi-weekly column “The Good Life” on TheIndependent.ca.

Jameson said the growing interest in food security offers significant opportunities for Newfoundland and Labrador.

“In this province we definitely face challenges like you would anywhere, in terms of food security, whether that’s getting into food production [like] farming or fishing,” she said.

“But we’re at this really exciting point where we actually have a lot of support and interest in this work from a variety of different levels and sectors in the province. So, as a result, FSN is really trying to take a diversity of approaches and running a variety of different projects and programs that help to engage people at all those different levels in talking about addressing, and actually doing action, to improve access to healthy food in the province.”

The FSN is currently working on a number of projects around the province, including NiKigijavut Nunatsiavutinni, a community-led project to develop and promote food security in Inuit communities in partnership with Nunatsiavut and local governments.

“The amount of interest that we’ve seen within the community, but also within the region and then broader within the province to support these [kinds of] initiatives, I think is an indicator of more interest in these issues.”

For more information on Food Security Network initiatives (they are doing some really cool stuff), visit the FSN website.

Food Education Action St. John's.
Food Education Action St. John’s.

Those in St. John’s interested in learning about food production and food security might want to check out FEASt’s annual FEASt Fest this Saturday.

The event, held in the Foran Room at St. John’s City Hall, runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and features workshops on growing micro-greens and sprouting indoors, fermenting and kombucha, and indoor seed-starting. After the community lunch—food provided—there will be a panel discussion about growing food in the city, featuring three local growers, Heffernan explained.

FEASt Fest will also feature booths on specific topics and the annual seed swap, where people can donate extra seeds to the FEASt’s seed bank, or take seeds they want for their garden.

“They’re not tramplin’ over each other trying to get to the garden,” Heffernan joked, when asked whether St. John’s is in the midst of a food production renaissance. “But there’s always people that are inspired to go home [from FEASt Fest] and grow something.

“A lot of people are afraid to start growing — like it’s a big unknown,” she continued. “But things just want to grow; if you put it in the ground it’s probably going to grow. You don’t need to know a lot to get started, and you learn as you go. And there’s lots of support from people in the community.”

For more information on FEASt Fest, visit FEASt’s website or join their Facebook group.

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