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Labrador Institute looks at turning farm into agricultural research hub

Memorial University discusses opportunities for Grand River Farm

Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University
Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University

HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, NL – Grand River Farm in Happy Valley-Goose Bay has been idle since the passing of one of its proprietors last year.
Now, Memorial University of Newfoundland wants to obtain the lease for the property on Mud Lake Road.
Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, told the Labradorian the university has been looking at ways to support agriculture in the province.
Last March Memorial president Dr. Gary Kachanoski met with the Labrador Institute to discuss opportunities to transfer the 85-acre lease to the university to create a research and education hub that would also support local farmers.
“Those conversations were ongoing, and, in the fall, we found out it was possible for us to explore this option further because some financial resources from a donor emerged,” Cunsolo said.
“That’s where we’re at right now, having discussions around what this would be like –  do people see a need for it, would it be a co-operative, a social enterprise, how would people want to work with the university, what would the university do, what are the challenges and the opportunities, and just seeing what’s out there and what sort of network can be built in Labrador around this.”
About 20 people attended a recent open house to discuss ideas, including local farmers; people interested in food security, community freezers and food hubs; and people interested in research and science applications.
“It’s a really exciting mix of people and it shows the not just shift and change in the province for supporting our own food needs and our nutrition, but also the larger food security issues in the region,” Cunsolo said.
One of the local farmers in attendance was Jim Purdy, who also farms on Mud Lake Road. Purdy said he came into the session with an open mind because the farm neighbours his and he’d hate to see it go to bushes.
He said he liked what he heard.
“I’ve encouraged (Memorial) to go forward with this,” he said. “They have a lot of influence with government and industry. Something like this, what their vision is – I think if it comes to fruition, which will take a few years, it will be really good.”
The provincial government has recently shown interest in agriculture as well. The Way Forward strategy identified food security as an issue in the province, with only about 10 per cent of food consumed in the province produced here.
Government recently announced that 64,000 hectares of Crown land is being turned into land for agricultural production, effectively doubling what is currently allotted.
Purdy said Memorial’s project could be a good addition to what the province is trying to do.
“With the province now talking about increasing food production, anything we can do in Labrador is worthwhile,” he said. “There’s good machinery, good resource people to talk about the market, to contribute. I can’t see why it couldn’t happen and be a big thing for the area.
“It’s a good idea. I wondered on my way here what was going to happen, but I’m impressed and happy they reached out to talk to the guys doing it already.”
One of the issues discussed at the open house in Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the regulatory challenge posed to people in this province who want to farm land. Highlighted was the fact you can’t buy agricultural land in Newfoundland and Labrador, but simply lease it.
“That means that anything that you put on it, you don’t actually own, so that’s a challenge for people from a business perspective,” Cunsolo said.
“When we’re looking at having the lease transferred to us – as a university we’re looking at ways to support people to enter the farming market while they’re going through some of the different policy things, like trying to acquire a lease.”
One of the suggestions is that the area become a transitional place where people can try farming, or do so until a lease becomes available, giving people opportunities to learn skills before starting their own enterprises, she said.  
Other ideas included allowing people to grow cannabis on the land and looking into the applications of hemp in a northern climate.
“That’s certainly the hot topic for sure,” Cunsolo said when asked about cannabis. “One of the things we’ve been differentiating between was the research potential around understanding hemp in a northern growing environment versus cannabis as a commercial crop now that it’s going to be legalized.
“Around a research perspective there’s going to be incredibly interesting questions to be asked around hemp itself, how it grows in the north, what products it can be used for, as a fibre, as insulation, as a sustainable product.”
She said whatever the focus, the project will be a non-profit enterprise, with the university creating a support system or co-operative enterprise to give back to the community.

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