Labrador farmers want changes to ag land leasing policy

by Heather Jones

 Des Sellars harvests Purple cabbage at his Nature’s Best Farm in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. (Erin Anderson photo)

Des Sellars harvests Purple cabbage at his Nature’s Best Farm in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. (Erin Anderson photo)

The status quo of Labrador’s agricultural industry is not acceptable, according to farmers in the central part of the region.
Des Sellars recently made 13 recommendations on behalf of the Lake Melville Agricultural Association to the provincial committee that’s consulting farmers and stakeholders on a risk assessment for the Newfoundland and Labrador industry. The assessment will be used to develop future programs. 
“Farming has been going on here in the Central Labrador lowlands, perhaps in a semi-commercial kind of way, since at least the ’70s and perhaps before,” said Sellars, who operates Nature’s Best Farm in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. “It has strong environmental assets. The winters might be long. But when the spring breaks, then you’ve got beautiful warm temperatures.”
He said the growing season has the “same basic operating parameters” as the rest of Atlantic Canada, adding that the region also has fewer insects and pests than other areas and the lowest electricity rates in the country. 
“It has rock-free soil,” said Sellars. “It can grow almost any type of crop imaginable. Farmers wouldn’t do well to grow corn or heat-sensitive crops. But anything outside of that – grains, forages, cover crops, certainly all the root crops, greens – all of that is relatively easy to grow.” 
While there is a little bit of compression, the sandy loam soil “can produce some very acceptable commercial yields. We’re not talking about an area that needs a lot of inputs to make it anywhere close to viable.”
While there are advantages to farming in Central Labrador, there are a number of disadvantages. Sellars said the majority of farmers in the region are older than 55.
“There’s virtually no uptake by new entrants and we’re down to only one or two farmers that are really producing any kind of crop even on a semi-commercial basis,” he said. “Between 97 and 99 percent of all food is imported into the area because the region is not producing anything of any consequence.”
Sellars estimates that with a population of around 30,000 and an average household food budget of $8,000-$10,000, the annual economic loss to Labrador is $30-$60 million.
“Where is the logic of spending that kind of money on food if we can be growing it ourselves? 
“The problem is that we do not have policies and procedures that allow farming activity to flourish. There needs to be a completely different approach, because the policies that have been in place since the ’70s have by and large not worked.”
Since 1977, the government has leased but not granted land in Labrador. The land can be farmed but it never belongs to the farmer. 
Sellars said that policy is “one of the most troubling things and vexing pieces for farmers. Every other Canadian farmer owns at least a portion of their land holdings.”
He has always maintained that “leased land is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that it allows farmers to get in relatively cheaply at between $1 and $1.50 an acre.”
But agriculture is “capital cost intensive.” As their operations evolve, farmers need equipment, machinery, and facilities for storage and processing.
“The problem is that if you become an established farmer and you want to put in a half-a-million-dollar storage facility, what business person is going to take on that risk? Because the land is leased, farmers can’t be guaranteed they will get their fair share of equity from the building.”
And should a farmer want or need to sell, “people are not going to want to buy a farm for half-a-million or a million dollars … they’re going to want to buy leased land. So leased land can actually increase business risk.”  
The Lake Melville Agricultural Association presented the risk assessment committee with two solutions to the leased land policy. One is that the cost for a farmer to construct any building or facility on the leased land is completely funded under agricultural incentive programs. The second is that an agreed portion of every agricultural land lease would be granted land. 
“The province always uses the argument, ‘We need to protect the agricultural land.’ The association is saying, ‘You can protect land very easily, make it an agricultural zone,’” said Sellars. “There would be no issue around developers coming in in the auspices of some sort of agricultural program and turning it into something that it’s not. It would protect the land in the interests of farming and food production. So even that argument doesn’t hold water.”
While there is huge potential for growth, Sellars said Labrador farmers have a number of strikes against them, such as “outrageous” input costs.
“The region has two-and-a-half times the input costs – we know that for a fact – of farmers on the island (of Newfoundland),” said Sellars. “And I would imagine that they’re probably three to four times the input costs of their Atlantic counterparts. If we’re talking about an (provincial) agricultural strategy that’s going to make sense, we’ve got to look at ways and means of how we can level that playing field.”
He said, “The quickest remedy, in my personal opinion, is that we need to come to some common understanding. We need to have – and this would be within the next five years – built infrastructure so that food products can be produced within the region and that we have some way of storing it so it can be put into the retail stores.”
Sellars said the region can sustain itself agriculturally “if we had the right structures in place,” adding that he feels positive about the future if local farmers can keep the risk assessment conversations going.
“We need to be having conversations about how we can change the status quo,” he said.

N.L. agriculture risk assessment
The Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture (NLFA) is looking for input from farmers and industry stakeholders on a risk assessment for the provincial industry.
There are three ways to provide input. 
The NLFA held consultation sessions in St. John’s, Deer Lake, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Grand Falls-Windsor, Clarenville, Carbonear, and Stephenville during the summer. Visit www.facebook.com/nlfarms for information on further sessions.
The NLFA invites producers and stakeholders to drop by its booth at the 2017 Agrifoods and Garden Show at the Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium in Grand Falls-Windsor from Oct. 20-22.
Farmers can also contact the NLFA at 709-747-5920 or leanne@nlfa.ca.
The deadline for input is Oct. 31.