Young farm­ers face hur­dles

Lib­er­als prom­ise changes to land leas­ing as prov­ince tries to reach pro­duc­tion goals

The Labradorian - - EDITORIAL - BY ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK

Peter and Melissa Coates are both 29 years old. They have a farm and con­sider them­selves farm­ers, fourth gen­er­a­tion. They want to farm full-time in Newfoundland and Labrador, but are work­ing other day jobs to cover the bills.

Speak­ing with TC Me­dia, they de­scribed hur­dles and red tape en­coun­tered while try­ing to es­tab­lish their farm­ing busi­ness. They said they’ve been un­able to ob­tain needed agri­cul­tural land in their area and have been slowed by the up-front fi­nan­cial de­mands, hav­ing a frus­trat­ing lack of suc­cess in tap­ping any gov­ern­ment fund­ing to help.

“It’s just re­ally hard for young peo­ple to get started,” Melissa Coates said, sit­ting in her kitchen ta­ble at the back of a farm­house on Larch Grove Road in Con­cep­tion Bay South.

There is a view from there out back, to an in­su­lated barn the cou­ple only re­cently fin­ished, hous­ing their four cows and about 90 chick­ens. On the other end of the yard, there’s a green­house about the size of a stan­dard baby barn, where they start their veg­eta­bles from seed, ahead of each year’s plant­ing.

Their ex­ist­ing farm busi­ness in­cludes pro­duce grown on a small piece of the ad­ja­cent farm, in op­er­a­tion for more than 140 years and run by Peter Coates’ fa­ther, David Coates.

With Coates’ Farm, Peter and Melissa have been able to start out on their own in the past few years. While Peter’s fa­ther spe­cial­izes in root veg­eta­bles, they have pro­duced a wider va­ri­ety — from toma­toes and zucchini, to squashes and beans — sell­ing to restau­rants and shops on the Avalon Penin­sula and at the St. John’s Farm­ers’ Mar­ket.

But the young Coates’ have been left on an end­less hunt for land avail­able, to pro­vide the space they need to grow. Their plan is to pro­duce hay and re­al­ize a dream of farm­ing cat­tle, if they can get the space for it.

Ap­pro­pri­ate agri­cul­tural land is just not ac­ces­si­ble in the area, they said. And in part, it’s due to agri­cul­tural leases be­ing ex­tended for ex­ist­ing land hold­ers, de­spite a lack of en­hance­ment and farm pro­duc­tion, even af­ter years have passed, vi­o­lat­ing Crown lease con­di­tions.

Min­is­ter prom­ises change The prov­ince’s min­is­ter of Agri­foods, Steve Crocker, was not sur­prised to be asked about land ac­cess. He said the Lib­er­als want to see change, mak­ing note of the Crown Lands Act passed in the fall sit­ting of the House of Assem­bly and goals for im­proved food pro­duc­tion in the prov­ince.

“Of our mas­sive land mass, only 0.9 per cent of our land is suit­able for agri­cul­ture,” he said.

“As a depart­ment, we’re go­ing to look at be­com­ing firmer when it comes to our ‘use it or lose it’ pol­icy when it comes to agri­cul­tural land. Be­cause in lots of cases, all over the prov­ince, we’re see­ing land that’s be­ing des­ig­nated for agri­cul­ture and there are plans to de­velop, but in lots of cases those plans don’t come to fruition.”

Crocker was not speak­ing specif­i­cally to the Coates’ case, but said the prov­ince does have to make sure leased farm­land is not kept idle.

“We don’t have enough land to have land tied up,” he said.

Land a long-stand­ing is­sue Other young farm­ers who spoke with The Tele­gram said land ac­cess has long been an is­sue and makes it dif­fi­cult for any new en­trants, re­gard­less of age or plans.

“My­self, to get a piece of land, I had to wait four years. I ap­plied when I was in univer­sity,” said Chris Oram, a farmer and man­ager of Mark’s Mar­ket in Wood­dale.

Oram said he did ul­ti­mately ac­cess the land he re­quired. He com­pleted a suc­cess­ful ex­pan­sion of his busi­ness in 2016, in­clud­ing the open­ing of a new mar­ket build­ing.

But the fi­nan­cial side of agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment is no joke, he said.

“It is a hard in­dus­try to get into be­cause of the huge cap­i­tal as­sets that you need to start out. I mean, noth­ing’s cheap for any equip­ment or trac­tors or land,” he said.

He sug­gested ed­u­ca­tion for new en­trants will also be a con­sid­er­a­tion with the pro­posed rapid ex­pan­sion of the in­dus­try, but he feels the prov­ince is on the right path.

“I think our cur­rent gov­ern­ment is more sup­port­ive of agri­cul­ture than a pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment has been in quite some time,” said David Sim­mons, chair­man of the NL Young Farm­ers’ Fo­rum. Sim­mons, who runs Pure Hol­steins dairy farm, said the avail­abil­ity of agri­cul­tural land for lease by farm­ers has been an is­sue.

He said he does ex­pect change in the near fu­ture on that front.

Fund­ing pro­grams up­date As for fund­ing, Sim­mons said there have been mean­ing­ful con­sul­ta­tions on ex­ist­ing fund­ing pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to the fed­eral-pro­vin­cial Grow­ing For­ward.

The min­is­ter said ne­go­ti­a­tions are on­go­ing about a new ver­sion of that pro­gram, with a push for a pro­gram and pro­vi­sions that will work for this prov­ince’s de­sire for growth.

Crocker was also asked about a re­ported de­lay in the 2016-17 Pro­vin­cial Agri­foods As­sis­tance Pro­gram, with a later ap­pli­ca­tion dead­line. He ac­knowl­edged the Septem­ber dead­line in the fis­cal year, which is not the norm. He said the depart­ment ex­pects to be back with an ear­lier time­line for the pro­gram in the com­ing year.

From land leases to fund­ing, the Coates’ said they will have to wait and see if there is any re­lief for them. Ei­ther way, they’re not about to give up on their farm­ing dreams, even if they both have to con­tinue with their other jobs, on top of the work on the farm.

When asked why they would keep it all go­ing, there was an im­me­di­ate re­sponse.

“Be­cause we en­joy it,” Melissa said.

ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK/TC ME­DIA

Melissa and Peter Coates visit their an­i­mals in the in­su­lated barn they built on their prop­erty. De­spite ap­ply­ing to pro­grams, to date they have not re­ceived any gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance in their work to get es­tab­lished, but their en­tre­pre­neur­ial ap­proach has brought them to a point where they’re look­ing for help to grow.

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