Down on the farm

Lillian Simmons
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Living the dream and the disappointment on a small farm

By Lillian Simmons

Special to The Telegram

Terry Dobbie is trying to use a common sense approach to farming — not necessarily organic, but free from pesticides and herbicides. The only chemical fertilizer he uses is NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), which he hand spreads on his potatoes.

Six years ago Dobbie invested his savings into the 66-acre Growdat Farms in Heart’s Content. Since then the 43-year-old has been losing money every year.

“Last year was my best year ever and I lost just under $10,000. In five years I’ve lost a little over $90,000.”

Dobbie tells his story with no malice, no bitterness, no regret. But he is perturbed, mildly frustrated and relentless in his search for solutions. If he continues to lose money, he’ll soon have to shut the farm gates for good.

Dobbie says there are agencies who, in their mission statements, profess to provide help to farmers like him.

But so far he has received little help — $5,000 towards a $20,000-greenhouse and $5 an hour toward a student salary for 14 weeks.

Dobbie figures he can’t access funding because he refuses to gear up in a “hazmat suit and spray his fields with chemicals.”

That’s the accepted, efficient way to farm, he said. Hand spreading fertilizer isn’t. It’s labour intensive and time consuming.

But his conscience won’t let him suit up and spray. The farm is located on a hill above the Heart’s Content water supply.

“If I do that, not only am I wasting money, because 80 per cent of it is washing away, but that’s a lot of the problem with farming. That’s what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico and all the gulfs and streams. It’s not even the pesticides that are doing it; there’s so much nutrients (fertilizer) going in there, the algae sucks all that up, takes all the oxygen out, kills all the fish. We get these huge plumes of oceans and rivers that are just dead space because there’s too much nitrogen, too much nutrients in there. That’s a huge problem.”

Ducks love strawberries?

He’s never seen a food inspector visit the farm. And when he asks questions he’s told: do what you want, grow it how you want, just get it to market. But his conscience continues to tap him on the shoulder.

“You might not get sick today, but what happens 20 years from now when all of a sudden this weird disease comes up, and that’s what I’m finding with (research on) pesticides. I would love to go out and spray some pesticides. Trying to grow carrots organically is brutal.”

Spraying is the short-term solution. But in 20 years the pests will have evolved and the same chemical won’t work, he says.

“So then what do I do? Make it stronger? Make it worse? It’s not because I’m purely organic. I’m more thinking of the long term. It doesn’t work. It’s not going to work. What we’re doing today is not ignorance, it’s greed. But people have to eat, so do what you gotta do and let the next generations deal with it.”

Instead, he crawls about on his hands and knees picking slugs off his strawberries. He thought he’d found a friend two years ago when he discovered ducks like slugs.

“They were perfect, like little Hoovers going up and down the rows. Until the drake, one day, accidentally ate one of those red things and said: hey girls, don’t worry about the slugs, these things are delicious! And all 20 of them just started devouring strawberries.

“They weren’t even eating slugs any more at all,” he laughs.

He doesn’t mind squishing bugs by hand. What bothers him is having to sell strawberries for $4 a pint when supermarkets can sell them from California or Mexico for half that price. He’s learned that within two days after picking, strawberries have lost 90 per cent of their nutrients.

“It’s not bad for you, but you’re pretty much eating cardboard.

“I try to stay optimistic because I think I understand both sides of it. I don’t begrudge people who go to the supermarket and get their potatoes for 30 cents a pound. But at some point we need to understand why that potato is 30 cents. There’s a reason for that. My point isn’t to make really good food for the rich. I don’t want to say, OK if you’re a millionaire you can have fresh salad, but if you’re a poor child or single mother, no you’d better go get your hamburger because there’s more calories in that. You better buy your pop because it’s cheap.

“That cabbage at the supermarket has to cost $18, too. Even if you did it commercially, just to ship it here from halfway around the world it has to cost more. But it’s subsidized in every step. Each government has to increase their GDP so they’ll take a hit. They know people have to eat so they don’t mind taking a hit.

“If some of those chains of subsidies said, ‘Hey, hang on a second, why don’t we subsidize the local farms?’ I could sell strawberries for $1.99. It goes all the way up the chain. Then you’re talking big contracts. We’ll give you our water, if you give us some of your vegetables at a subsidized price. Every time you scan something at the supermarket, a rebate cheque is issued. Everywhere along the chain, it’s subsidized.

“I can’t compete with that.”

Working with nature

Dobbie says while a person isn’t permitted to “stick their toe” in the water supply for the town, “farmers have been up here just putting on their gas masks and spraying like there’s no tomorrow on a hill facing that drinking supply.”

“I squish, squish, squish,” he says about the battle with bugs. “I don’t use any pesticides. But this land …they just soaked it with pesticides.”

According to his research it takes about five years to return the soil to normal and he’s getting close.

He’s trying to work alongside nature, rather than fighting her. But with only two people (he and greenhouse manager Donna Bishop) and help from his father, Bud, a couple of days a week, it’s not easy.

“I really should have a couple of cows and pigs and move them from pasture to pasture, ’cause each one provides their own function. You have your cow on the pasture and then move it. You have to wait exactly 26 days because that’s the actual optimal time for the maggots to form in their manure. Then you move the chickens in. Chickens love maggots; you don’t get any flies ’cause the maggots didn’t get a chance to hatch. The chickens are doing their digging, so they’re spreading the manure. It’s a perfect, efficient system. And Mother Nature has a perfect, efficient system for everything.”

He’s already got the chickens and can’t keep up with the demand for fresh eggs. He has carrots, potatoes and strawberries and recently planted blueberries. “Why are we importing most of the blueberries we eat?

“I don’t want to sound negative. I don’t have the answers. And I think this is a place where you can start building a foundation to trying to find some of those answers. I need to find a way that I can survive while I’m doing this so I can get more efficient. Right now surviving would be a dream come true.”

He shrugs and smiles.

“The reason I’m doing this is that once in a while someone says, ‘This is how my grandfather did it, thank you for doing that.’ Or, you get a little girl who picks a carrot and says, ‘Wow that tastes really good!’”

Salad bar

Down at the greenhouse at Growdat Farms, Donna Bishop provides seedlings, salad greens and flowers the constant attention they require. Because there’s no irrigation to the fields, she’s decided this year to grow pumpkins in pots.

“I can keep an eye on them, they’re healthy, there’s not as much weeding and the water’s right here.”

Bishop starts in the greenhouse in April, planting some of the crops for the fields, working seven days a week until mid-June.

“I seed flowers and vegetables, I bring in some plugs and cuttings. From there it’s go, go, go.”

She’s seen interest perk up in the past two years.

“The salad bar is really taking off. We tried growing cabbage and broccoli in the greenhouse, but it’s too hot.”

Bishop is the co-chair of the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network Newfoundland and Labrador (ACORN).

“The real thing that drives ACORN is organic certification. I’ve told them that’s not really our interest, but we want to be part of that community because we do grow organically, even though we’re not certified.”

It takes a “lot of money and paperwork” to become organically certified and Bishop says some of the Newfoundland farms that were certified have given up certification because it was so expensive. Farmers weren’t getting the price for the product to make up the difference.

“They won’t let anyone in Newfoundland certify a farm, so you have to fly someone in at your expense from another province to OK it. One of our farmers did the courses to certify farms, but for some bureaucratic reason they wouldn’t allow him to do it.”

But more and more consumers are beginning to understand and taste the difference in commercially grown and organically grown products.

“It’s going to taste different. And if you did any research on strawberry growing and knew what was done to those strawberries that you pick up for a buck,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve read too much. In the wintertime when I do my reading and research, I nearly stop eating.”

This year Bishop is using more local and heritage seeds than ever before and is hoping eventually she’ll get to a point of using only those.

“Organic seeds cost more. We call it organic, as if that’s a new concept. It’s just doing things right and having some common sense and knowing that if you spray pesticides on something you’re about to eat, you’re going to eat the pesticide. Now, how much pesticide you think is safe — that’s everybody’s individual decision.”

Most the people who shop at the farm know what they’re buying.

“Our customers trust us. They’re free to look around and see how we do things,” she says.

“When we say we don’t use pesticides, they believe us.”

Organizations: Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: California, Gulf of Mexico, Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • mainlander
    September 03, 2013 - 12:12

    I am so glad to see more local farmers in Nfld. I think it is criminal that factory farms get all kinds of government subsidies to produce a nutritionally inferior product & organic farmers have to pay the government to certify their food is free from chemicals. It is completely ass-backwards. Small farmers are the ones that should be getting the subsidies, not mega corporations!