Young farmers face hurdles
Liberals promise changes to land leasing as province tries to reach production goals
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.
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.