Second in a three-part series
Labrador may have a reputation among some people for having a cool climate not hospitable to commercial farming, but those folks should take a look at what’s growing and selling there now.
Frank and Joyce Pye have operated Grand River Farm in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area for 25 years. The operation has existed in different locations and has occupied an 80-acre property on Mud Lake Road for the last six years.
What exactly can they grow?
“Well, there’s a long list,” laughs Joyce Pye.
Root vegetables — carrots, turnips and potatoes — are harvested at Grand River Farm, as they are by most vegetable producers on the island. The Pyes grow a variety of lettuces and greens, including turnip greens, swiss chard, arugula, spinach and kale, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower, cabbage, herbs, peas, beans, pumpkins, squash and corn.
The growing season in southern Labrador varies annually, according to Joyce, with frost sometimes experienced in late June. She recalls one year where it came as late as July 4.
Following the summer, frost generally returns in mid-September, but has been known to come in late August.
“But we do have long, hot days in Goose Bay,” said Joyce. “We do have good warm temperatures over the summer usually — this summer is a particularly good summer.”
The local market for selling produce is apparently a good one, accor-ding to Frank Pye, who says most produce travels a long distance before reaching Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“Your major competition is 2,000 kilometres away, and the local wholesalers have to pay the same freight cost to bring in produce,” he said.
“We can match any competitor (from) outside price-wise, and we are providing fresh produce. Can you imagine the difference between an ear of corn that’s picked on our farm 4 p.m. and put in the pot for supper, compared to something that was picked in Ontario two weeks ago and went through a wholesaler and a retailer and sat in the store?”
Grand River Farms sells food on site, and buyers can also avail of their produce through the Outdoor Community Market, a project supported by the Central Labrador Economic Development Board (CLEDB), of which Joyce Pye is a board member. This is its second year operating.
Tim Niles, the market’s manager, said the market was partially modelled after the Big Land Fair, an annual event that brought together farmers, bakers and craftspeople. He said the first year was quite successful.
“We were financially stable, and it actually grew quite a bit in popularity.”
It generated $28,000 in sales for 2011, with the number of vendors involved increasing as the season progressed, according to Niles.
Due to a decision made by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to eliminate funding for regional economic development boards in Newfoundland and Labrador, CLEDB is scheduled to cease operating effective this December.
One major challenge for farmers in Labrador is the cost of transporting equipment, fertilizer and feed to the area. Joyce Pye said if equipment breaks down, there are no local sources for purchasing replacement parts.
“A farmer here pretty much needs to be his own mechanic,” added Frank Pye.
Farmers in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area have taken measures to help each other through involvement with the Lake Melville Agricultural Association.
The association has half a dozen members who share the cost of equipment that’s otherwise unaffordable for individual farms.
“Each farmer pays a rental fee, which we set low enough that it covers our expenses — the operator’s salary, the insurance, the fuel ... and gives us just a few dollars at the end of the year (such) that over a couple of years we can (pool resources) together and buy another piece of equipment,” said Joyce Pye.
The Pyes initially latched onto farming as a retirement project — Frank was a United Church clergyman, while Joyce worked as a school teacher for 30 years.
While most farmers in the area have been operating for quite some time, she said it’s exciting to see that a younger couple has formed Patey’s Farm and are in the process of setting up a year-round greenhouse.
Earlier this summer, the provincial government announced it will provide the farm with an $86,500 term loan to construct the greenhouse. The farm is owned and operated by Lorne and Janet Patey.
To enhance their farm, the Pyes promote agri-tourism by encouraging visitors to pick their own food, take wagon rides, use a picnic table for lunch, or purchase ice cream as a snack.
“Farming is enough of a rarity here in Labrador ... that people like to come just for a visit,” said Joyce Pye.