Covid carrots: N.B. takes pandemic as warning it's producing too few vegetables

Covid carrots: N.B. takes pandemic as warning it’s producing too few vegetables

Alarmed by the cross border competition for essential goods sparked by the COVID-19 crisis, Premier Blaine Higgs has been embracing an old Green Party issue around the need for more locally grown food – especially vegetables – and is pledging action to boost provincial broccoli, brussels sprout and beet production.

“If we can ramp up our ability to grow more here in the province and have a greater level of food security then let’s start down that path,” said Higgs during his daily briefing Monday.

“One thing we have in this province is certainly lots of land and we need to make better use of it so we can start to reduce our dependence.”

New Brunswick has a significant agricultural sector but crop production is heavily dominated by potato farms with only limited amounts of other products grown locally.

According to Statistics Canada, farm receipts in New Brunswick in 2018 included just $9.7 million in revenue from field vegetables (not including $180.4 million from potatoes), the least amount in Canada outside of Newfoundland and Labrador.

That’s less than $13 in field vegetable production per person in New Brunswick. It is a fraction of the national average and well behind neighbouring provinces.

Falling behind neighbours

In 2018, Nova Scotia field vegetable production was $36 per capita, nearly triple the amount of New Brunswick and in PEI and Quebec it was more than 5 times greater at $71 and $72 per person respectively.

That means the vast majority of the more than $100 million in fresh field vegetables New Brunswick residents consume each year have to be imported, an issue Higgs has come to  believe is a potential threat to the province in an era of closed borders and disrupted supply lines.

“Food security was a big discussion we had with our COVID cabinet the other night.  It’s real,” said Higgs on CBC radio last Friday.  “I think it was eight percent of our (produce) supply comes from New Brunswick.  I mean, that is pretty sad.”

Consumers prefer locally grown vegetables, according to Darren Lavigne, owner of Pete’s Frootique in the Saint John City Market, but he finds it’s not always available, especially at this time of year.

“If you can get it local, we definitely sell local,” said Lavigne

“As a retailer, we want to sell local, we want to support local. It only makes 100 per cent sense to buy local when we can. Consumers feel the same way. If we can get it local, they prefer it.”

There is suitable land and climate to grow more produce locally, but getting it harvested and sold is the difficult part, according to New Brunswick farmer Micheal Carr.

Micheal Carr, who operates the Jemseg River Farm, says New Brunswick can produce more locally grown food if the province knocks down some of the barriers. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

“I could produce more vegetables this year. I can up my production probably 50 per cent, but my sales are uncertain and all the investment in vegetables is upfront and so my incentives are not to do that,” said Carr, who operates the Jemseg River Farm about 50 kilometres southeast of Fredericton 

But Carr said if the province wants more locally grown food, there are ways to make that happen. Help solving some of the problems farmers have, including attracting, training and keeping workers, especially at harvest time, high capital costs for new farmers and getting local products in front of consumers could all make a difference he believes.

“There are a number of issues. They could be overcome, but there are no easy solutions to it,” said Carr.

But suddenly COVID-19 appears to have created an appetite for solutions.

New Brunswick farmers who grow and sell fresh vegetables are in short supply. Blaine Higgs has promised to lay out a plan to encourage more farming in the province to lessen dependence on outside suppliers (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

Food security for New Brunswick in the form of more locally grown produce has been an issue discussed for years in environmental circles but without much political traction.

In 2015, New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon introduced a private member’s bill – the Local Food Security Act – designed to encourage more local farming, but it died after first reading.

A separate government initiative by the D​​​epartment of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries last year to supply 150 New Brunswick school cafeterias with up to 30 per cent of their food from local sources got bogged down somewhere between producers and cafeteria operators and fell 57 schools short of its target 

But this year, Coon said when he brought the subject up again at the all party cabinet committee that has been steering the province through the COVID-19 pandemic, it won instant support

“Brittle” supply lines

A number of events have helped boost the attractiveness of local production, according to Coon.

Earlier this month, Canada and the U.S. fought over the supply of N95 medical masks, there have been worldwide shortages of COVID-19 testing supplies and major meat packing plants in the U.S. have shut down because of infected workers. 

“I think people have seen how brittle our global supply lines can be,” he said.

“All of that has led to a greater sense of anxiety about these long supply lines for goods that are essential and that includes food.” 

New Brunswick has a robust seafood industry and produces significant amounts of  dairy, eggs, poultry and other meat products that supply local needs, but only minimal amounts of vegetables.

New Brunswick grown cabbage and turnips were on sale in the Saint John City Market on Tuesday but more than 90 per cent of the fresh vegetables provincial residents buy each year have to be imported. (Robert Jones / CBC News)

Also in limited supply and under consideration by the province for expansion is local fruit production.  New Brunswick has significant yields of some fruits already, like blueberries and cranberries, but its strawberry and apple production is a fraction of Nova Scotia’s. 

Higgs believes it is worthwhile for government to figure out what can be grown and consumed locally and work out a ten year plan to make it happen.

“We’re not utilizing what we have the capability to do here,” he said  

“Take a map of New Brunswick and say ‘Okay, what is it we can provide here in our province? What is realistic? How secure can we be as a province?’.” 

“I think it’s the time now to get a straight focus. It’s like, ‘Here’s our ten year view on what is going to get us into a food security program.  Now’s the time to do it’.”

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