Newfoundland and Labrador's climate and soil have not been conducive to agriculture, but outport
isolation and poor incomes in the fishery have made supplementary farming crucial. Fishing families
raised root crops, some hay and oats, and livestock for their own use, but traded marginal surpluses
locally. In the early part of the nineteenth century, severe potato blight combined with bad weather
and failures in the fishery, forced the government to provide poor relief to prevent famine.
Exasperated with poor relief, the colonial government embraced commercial agriculture by the
1840s, believing that the colony had great interior agricultural resources. Many of Newfoundland's
first roads were the result of able-bodied relief programmes designed to look for such resources.
Pockets of good land were occasionally found and farmed, but without lessening overall dependence
on the fishery for employment. Persistent poor fish catches throughout the 1860s led government
to pass new Crown Lands legislation that facilitated land grants and clearing for agricultural
purposes. When catches improved from 1869 to 1874, government did little to cultivate agriculture
further, but a bad fishery in 1875 led to a renewed policy commitment to farming.
Early commercial farming was most successful close to St. John's, which, as the colonial capital and
military centre, provided a good local market for farmers. Farming concentrated in the Waterford
and Freshwater Valleys, as well as in Kilbride, the Goulds, Logy Bay, Outer Cove, Middle Cove and
Torbay. Military officers and professionals invested in country estates to be considered respectable.
Sir James Pearl's farm to the west of St. John's, “Mount Pearl,” was one such estate. More typical
were the smaller farms built by labourers such as William Ruby in the Goulds. Through the 1850s
and 1860s Ruby's thriving farm supplied the St. John's market with vegetables, hay and livestock
products. Over time, farmers close to St. John's began to specialize in the production of fresh milk,
eggs, and meat for the local market.
||Glendinning's farm, Mount Pearl, 1919.
Farming was most successful close to St. John's.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies
(Coll - 137, 7.01.004), Memorial University of Newfoundland,
St. John's, Newfoundland.
Commercial farming otherwise faced enduring problems. There were few local markets, and marine
transport facilitated the import of cheaper farm goods. Local farms generated little employment
relative to the massive government funding spent to encourage them. Between 1886 and 1898
governments succeeded best in encouraging supplementary rather than commercial farming
independent of the fishery.
From 1891 to 1921 the increasing populations of the outports had cultivated almost every bit of
available arable land. The development of employment in pulp-and-paper and mining towns
alleviated some of the pressure on the relatively poor farm land of coastal areas. These towns also
provided good local markets for the agricultural products of newer farming and fishing settlements
such as Musgravetown along the northeast coast, and the communities of the Codroy Valley on the
west coast. In 1919, the government established a model farm to build on these new developments.
With the Great Depression, expansion of employment in the mining and forestry sectors came to a
halt, and many outport people could no longer find work abroad in Canada and the United States.
Many returned to the outports even as fish prices plummeted, and local markets for outport farm
products proved limited.
|Codroy Valley, ca. 1994.
View of the Codroy River.
Reproduced by permission of Ben Hansen ©1994. From
Ben Hansen, Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's, ©1994)
The Commission of Government tried to solve unemployment through agricultural land settlement
during the Great Depression. A Demonstration Farm and adjunct Agricultural School were
established between 1935 and 1936. Unable to afford agricultural education programmes for the
outports, the Commission favoured centralized commercial farming communities, and sponsored
the construction of Markland, Haricot, Lourdes, Midland, Brown's Arm, Sandringham, Winterland,
and Point au Mal.
The residents were supposed to live and farm cooperatively, but the land settlement schemes failed.
Much of the Commission's effort went into trying to eliminate denominationalism and to reform the
character of settlers rather than into making agriculture work. Most of the potential farmers in these
settlements became discontented, and returned to the war-rejuvenated fishery, logging, or entered
new employment on military bases by 1944-45. The Commission eventually accepted that most
rural Newfoundlanders lived in areas that were not suitable for commercial farming, and began to
support supplementary farming by fishing people.
Supplementary farming was socially and culturally important. While men worked in the fishery,
women did most of the planting and fertilizing, and took great pride in keeping their potato gardens
weed-free, or in the quality of their hay-making. Few outport women wasted their meagre land on
ornamental flower gardening. Those who cultivated more than vegetable and hay crops grew flowers
and herbs which had medicinal or seasoning uses, or raised small fruits such as black currants.
While fishing dictated that settlements were scattered along the rugged coastline, gardens were as
important as flakes, stages and slips. Lanes snaked around communities to avoid spoiling good
gardens. People had vegetable gardens instead of lawns, and used unique stick fences to keep
animals out. Larger vegetable and hay gardens surrounded most outports.
||Unidentified women hay-making, n.d.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador
(PANL a12-122), St. John's, Newfoundland.
Farming and fishing were hard work, and did not prevent poverty. The experience of the Great
Depression, and the more prosperous times of World War II meant that many rural people accepted
J.R. Smallwood's promises about Confederation: new prosperity through transfer payments and
industrial diversification. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Smallwood improved living standards
by expanding the social welfare system. But his industrial diversification schemes failed to reduce
rural dependence on the traditional outport economy.
Newfoundland's agricultural policy assumed that industrialization would succeed. A 1953 provincial
royal commission recommended that the government discourage supplementary farming in favour
of larger, more concentrated commercial farms, claiming the former produced little value. Inshore
fishing communities were expected to disappear as the fishery modernized, industrialized, and
centralized in a few larger communities. Supplementary farming would vanish with the outports.
Despite resettlement in the 1960s and 1970s, Newfoundland remained dependent on the modernized
and inshore fisheries. Integration into Canadian markets made imported food even cheaper, and
welfare and social security payments provided outport residents additional means to buy it.
However, promised incomes from industrial diversification failed to materialize, and many rural
Newfoundlanders nevertheless continued supplementary farming, although on a reduced scale.
Although the low cost of outport farming, due to family labour and local natural fertilizers,
impressed observers in the Canadian agriculture press, the provincial government limited its support
of agriculture to the commercial production of poultry, pork and dairy products, as well as mink
farming. The government fostered larger ventures because it wanted to stabilize centralized
agricultural production that could be more easily regulated, and supposedly would be more
economical, but large-scale commercial farms proved cost-effective only by mechanization that
The poultry, dairy, and meat sectors came to depend on government subsidies and
industry-controlled price support boards. Such supports particularly stabilized fresh milk
supplies, but at the
expense of increased costs to consumers. The Newfoundland government facilitated the grading
and processing of meat at facilities owned and operated by a provincial Crown Corporation first
established in 1963: the Newfoundland Farm Products Corporation.
Throughout the 1970s governments encouraged agricultural development primarily in designated
development areas such as the commercial dairy region of Musgravetown-Lethbridge in Bonavista
Bay. In the late 1980s, the government supported the introduction of new agricultural technology
in the form of the Sprung hydroponics facility in Mount Pearl. Hydroponics on such a large scale
proved too costly, and the Sprung enterprise closed in 1990, although smaller-scale hydroponic
The provincial government continues to support commercial agricultural development in production
and processing in the 1990s. The focus is now on the development of agriculture as a business
marked by mechanization, and organized within a free-market environment. This means the
elimination of much of the subsidy which has made full-time commercial production possible.
Although supplementary farming has remained important to provincial agriculture, it now receives
little state support.
© 1998, Sean Cadigan
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