Ahead of the Heard. FILE PHOTO

Farming on the rock is tough indeed

‘The Rock’ underlies the reality of agriculture in the province.

On a recent trip to Newfoundland I observed that in many ways Canada’s easternmost province could be its own country. Home to about 500,000 citizens who inhabit what is affectionately known as the “The Rock”, Newfoundland society is complete with its own culture, food, language, patriotic songs and 400-year history. It even has its own time zone. Unfortunately, the moniker, “The Rock”, also underlies the reality of agriculture in the province. Arable land is scarce allowing Newfoundland to be just 10 per cent self-sufficient in food production.

The ag sector generates a total of about $133 million in economic activity, most of that coming from the dairy and poultry sectors. Those sectors alone contribute $83 million annually to the ag economy and, thanks to supply management (SM), Newfoundland is close to being self-sufficient in dairy and poultry products. This is the only consistently profitable and stable part of ag production on The Rock. Suffice it to say that were it not for SM there would be no significant agriculture industry in the province. I suspect it would be a lot cheaper to import dairy and poultry products into Newfoundland than producing them there due to the high production costs involved.

The key factors limiting farming in Newfoundland are soil and climate. Most of the land consists of rock, bogs, muskeg, sloughs and generally really good moose pasture. Soil tends to be the poor thin brown type with generous quantities of rock and gravel. Agronomic practices need to be of the highest calibre to create an adequate level of tilth and fertility just to grow forages. Cereal production is almost non-existent with some corn grown for silage by dairy producers. I expect considerable tonnage of proteins must be imported to supply the SM producers.

Fish meal should be an ideal local source of protein but there might be a flavour concern with dairy and egg products. Because of long, snowy winters commercial beef production is almost non-existent. Other ag ventures include berries, horticulture and fur farming. What’s interesting about Newfoundland agriculture is that the government actively promotes expansion by offering up crown land for clearing and development. That’s still a costly endeavour being that the production returns of almost anything outside of SM can’t justify the capital expenditure.

Encouraging farming is nothing new to Newfoundland governments. Those efforts typically peak whenever fish prices collapse and the government attempts to diversify the economy, that history goes back to 1840. As expected, modern Newfoundland governments are eager promoters of ag diversification dreams and schemes. The most infamous was the Sprung Greenhouse fiasco in 1987 that saw the Newfoundland government partner with a Calgary greenhouse entrepreneur to relocate its operation to St. John’s.

After taxpayers spent $22 million on the scheme it proved to be an economic and logistical disaster and caused the defeat of the provincial government of the day. Boondoggles continue, one notes that the federal government recently provided a grant to research the risks associated with developing agricultural production in Newfoundland. You would think that after 400 years those risks would be obvious – soggy climate, poor soil, limited markets and cheap imports all restrict farming on The Rock. But I guess those realities are too simple for busybody bureaucrats and grant-chasing academics and consultants.

On another level is the province’s legendary traditional seafood and fishery economy, once the mainstay of the Newfoundland economy. Although a ghost of its former glorious past this sector still generates about a $1 billion in economic activity. The mighty cod fishery is down to supplying local demand only and most fishermen still in business are now chasing crabs, lobsters and mackerel. There is also a growing aquaculture sector with farmed Atlantic salmon.

This year is also the 25th anniversary of the infamous cod fishing moratorium and it still triggers bitter memories among Newfoundlanders. The fishery was such a significant part of not just the economy, but also of the history, culture and psyche of the province. To this day being a federal fisheries official in Newfoundland is a particularly reviled occupation. One notes from local radio talk shows that federal competency in managing cod stocks is still controversial and ridiculed, particularly when commentators point out the continuing success of the cod fishery in Iceland. The position of the feds, not surprisingly, is that more research is needed before a resumption of the cod fishery can be considered. One wonders how the cod story would have been handled had Newfoundland been its own separate country. More next time.

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