Farming the Big Land

Harvesting produce in Labrador yields challenges and rewards

Derek Montague
Published on April 19, 2014

Labrador is known for its beautiful landscape, clean air and undisturbed wildlife. But it’s also known for its long, harsh, cold winter climate, the type that makes you assume that farming in the Big Land would be nearly impossible.

But Frank and Joyce Pye, who own Grand River Farm in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, have been farming the rugged land of Labrador for more than 25 years, despite the unique challenges.

The couple came to central Labrador in the late ’60s, so Frank could serve as a minister of Happy Valley-Goose Bay’s United Church.

By 1987, Frank and Joyce were thinking of what they could do with their lives whenever they chose to retire. Farming, they decided, would keep them both busy and healthy well into old age.

“There were two motivations, really,” Says Joyce.

“We both had careers and we were looking at retirement coming down the road. And we thought, when we retire, we need something to keep ourselves busy, and active, and healthy. Farming is a good choice for that.

“And back in 1987, our supermarkets weren’t as good as they are today. Improvements have been made in quality. But back then the fresh vegetables and fruit were not very appetizing looking.”

They started off small with their farm, which was originally located off of the Trans-Labrador Highway. Since they were still working at the time, farming was done during their leisure time. Vacation days became farming days.

They started off with six and a half acres of land and gradually expanded to 20 acres. But, in 2005, Frank and Joyce had to move their farm.

Not far from the Pyes’ property, the Department of National Defense had declared some land contaminated. Although the farm was not touched by the contaminants, Frank and Joyce knew it would be hard to sell their produce there under the circumstances.

“When they started clearing all the debris from the base, the contamination … DND started putting signs along the highway, of course no one was going to turn in and by anything from the farms,” says Joyce.

Now, Grand River Farm is located on a beautiful 50-acre plot on Mud Lake Road. During Labrador’s farming season, the couple grow and harvest more than 20 different  crops, including pumpkins, strawberries, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and more.

Growing such a variety in Labrador involves a great deal of difficulty. In fact, says Frank and Joyce, the folks at the Department of Agriculture were not encouraging when it came to the idea of starting a farm in the Big Land.

“I don’t think they tried to dissuade us, but their attitude towards growing in Labrador was quite negative,” says Joyce.

“Someone from the department once told us it would be impossible to grow potatoes in Labrador,” adds Frank.

Labrador’s soil is a mixed bag for farmers like Joyce and Frank. But one advantage, compared to the soil on the island, is the lack of rock in the ground.

“On the island of Newfoundland, the one complaint that the farmers have is all the rocks — they can’t get rid of the rocks,” says Joyce. “Well we don’t have any rocks, it’s a sandy soil.”

But Labrador’s soil is not naturally fit for growing all of the Pyes’ crops. So, one of the their big challenges — and expenses — is adding fertilizer and other nutrients to the ground.

“You got sand; you can add the things that are needed to make it grow,” says Joyce. “And those amendments are expensive to bring in here. That’s one of the difficulties that we have.

“Frank and I are in process of purchasing a tractor-trailer load of chicken manure-based amendment from New Brunswick. The product will cost us $6,000 for 26 tons, but the freight will cost us $7,000.”

The cost of farming in Labrador can pale in comparison to the challenges delivered by the cold climate. Last summer was not a banner season for Grand River Farm, due to a late start caused by frost.

“Last year, we had a very poor year,” says Joyce. “The weather just did not co-operate at all.

“We couldn’t put the plants out until the end of June, because we were getting frost at night. We lost almost a month there. And our first killing frost we lost basil and beans, and pumpkin and squash were all damaged on the 19th of August.”

During their best year, Grand River Farm sold $50,000 worth of crops, without hardly any help from grocery stores. Frank and Joyce prefer to sell their produce directly to customers, instead.

“We try to avoid (selling to grocery stores) as much as we can,” says Joyce. “We want direct interaction with the customers.”

In order to get their product to the people of central Labrador, the couple operates their own little shop on the farm in-season, along with a U-harvest. Also, every Saturday during the summer, Happy Valley-Goose Bay hosts a community market, which is popular with local farmers.

But Frank and Joyce never got into the farming business to get rich. To this day, they rely on their pensions to help them keep ahead.

The couple says that without the vast support from the federal and provincial government, maintaining a farm would be near impossible. But luckily, the public is often supportive of local farmers, as well.

“In this province we, as farmers, are supported better in setting up a farm, clearing land, bringing in equipment, than anywhere else in Canada,” says Frank.

“That has been a progression, too,” adds Joyce. “That support wasn’t as good in ’87 as it is today … and I think that comes from this whole movement of modern people now wanting to know where their food comes from.”

Frank and Joyce own one of only a handful of farms in Labrador. They estimate that, of all the food consumed in Labrador, only two per cent is locally grown. It will be hard to get that number up, since farmers in Newfoundland and Labrador are aging.

Frank and Joyce are hoping more young people will try farming the Big Land, like they have for more than a quarter century. They admit, however, that it can be a tough sell. The hours are long and physically exhausting, and it probably won’t make a lot of money.

But, for those who have a passion for the trade, it’s a very rich lifestyle.

The Labradorian