Monday, 7 March 2016

Why It’s Time to Forget About Sprung

Why It’s Time to Forget About Sprung

By Ryan Young

Mention the word “greenhouse” anywhere in Newfoundland and Labrador and you get the customary rolling of eyes, sneers, and snickers from anyone within earshot of the discussion. Even respectable, well-educated people shuffle their feet and feel uncomfortable with the mention of the idea of growing our own food. That one terrible S-word stands trembling at the very edge of their lips. “Are you daft me’son?” Their looks could say. “Haven’t you ever heard of Sprung?”

Ah yes, the Sprung Greenhouse, Brian Peckford’s pet project to grow hydroponic vegetables in Mount Pearl. I was only a young boy in the late-eighties, but I can clearly remember the endless stories on the news about Sprung. Oh what a disaster! What a terrible short sighted waste of taxpayer money! Researching media reports from the time, it is almost hard to fathom how much coverage was given to the project. If you didn’t know better you would think the whole thing had cost the province billions of dollars instead of the actual investment of $22 Million. I understand the justification for being critical of any failed government investment, but if there is such a thing as media overkill, the Newfoundland journalists of the late eighties were demonstrating the very definition of the words in their reporting of the Sprung project. After a decade and a half of Tory rule in the province, people were ready for a change and Sprung became the flash-point for the collective frustrations of the media and the public.

It is certainly true that Sprung had its fair share of problems, but we must remember that it was a revolutionary project for its time. Despite its many issues it did manage to produce over 800 000 cucumbers during its short life. Many of the major problems with the project were supply issues. Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans just don’t eat that many cucumbers. In light of the recent #picklegeddon fiasco in the province right now, I wonder if anyone had considered building an adjacent mustard pickle factory to commercialize the whole operation.

Many issues contributed to the failure of the project but it was the political pandering and media scrutiny that meant that the idea of greenhouses in Newfoundland and Labrador would forever be viewed as a dreamer’s folly. If at first you don’t succeed, give up and never try again. The provincial government in the mid-eighties was in tune with our food security shortcomings and was taking proactive action on the issue. I have often viewed Peckford as a premier who was before his time, and Sprung certainly reinforces that idea.  Recognizing a great need and a well-timed opportunity, Peckford took a leap of faith on Sprung.  At the time it was new science and unproven technology but the project had great potential for success.

Despite the shortcomings of Sprung’s technology, location, and market issues, the basic idea of greenhouses in this province was actually a very good one. It would allow us to extend our traditional growing season and produce a wider variety of crops. If, instead of washing our hands of the whole mess, we had applied the lessons learned from Sprung and combined them with new technologies and a different variety of crops, it may have had a tremendous effect on the availability of fresh produce in the province. Who knows, perhaps it would even have curtailed some of our obesity and other health issues that have led to the current bloated and unsustainable healthcare costs we are struggling with.

When it came to food security and the agrifood industry, the rest of Canada was not willing to give so easily. Over the past 25 years, the greenhouse industry has enjoyed tremendous growth throughout the country. In 1991 there were 361 hectares of greenhouse growth. By 2014 that number was over 1400 hectares. And it’s not just cucumbers and tomatoes either. Growers from British Columbia to the Maritimes are using the latest advances in technology to increase yields and are experimenting more and more with new varieties. The incentive to do so is certainly there. The current total value of greenhouse sales in Canada topped $2.7 Billion in 2014.

Sadly, here in Newfoundland the idea of greenhouses has been relegated to the realm of fantasy and make believe. After all of the bad press and relentless criticism from Clyde Wells and the Liberal opposition of the day, no self-respecting bureaucrat would ever approve government funding for a greenhouse project again. Who would risk facing the ire and ridicule of the media and question period? Surely we had learned our lesson from Peckford’s great greenhouse gaffe. That is why any new technology or scientific data to support cold climate agriculture of any sort has so often been dismissed by the public as being unrealistic or un-viable here. Certainly no politician would dare stick their neck out on the issue, despite the collective moaning of the masses about nine dollar cauliflower and six dollar celery.  It is very sad to think that at least two generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans blindly accept the fact that we can’t grow our own food. I wonder if they ever stop to wonder how people ever survived here for hundreds of years. Then again I often wonder if some people ever stop to think at all, but again I digress.

Our inaction on food security and outright fear of even mentioning the “G” word has currently created a perfect storm. Soaring costs of fresh food leads to people eating cheaper processed foods, which ultimately leads to poorer nutrition outcomes and a greater overall burden on the entire healthcare system.  Many families just can’t afford to eat healthy, and the problem is compounded by other external factors such as ferry disruptions and droughts and other environmental factors in produce producing regions. If we are going to be able to provide a sustainable plan for health and wellness initiatives in this province, food security needs to be a big part of the discussion. We can’t afford to sit on our hands and mutter about a 30 year old project.

So what can we do? I firmly believe that the Liberals need to invest in rural agriculture initiatives and to re-examine our position on greenhouses. Certainly the technology has evolved to the point where we can set aside the old attitudes and try again? Words like economic diversity get thrown around quite a bit at the political level, but by investing in agriculture we have a real opportunity to actually create new, sustainable employment opportunities in rural areas of the province. At the same time we are being proactive in moving towards accomplishing future food security goals. What have we got to lose? Minister Christopher Mitchelmore seems to be attentive to the issues but with our current financial situation he will be hard pressed to convince the cabinet to approve the cash to get our agriculture industry moving in the right direction.

There are many ways the government can work to be proactive. Current issues in the media such as net-metering and backyard chickens highlight the need for a provincial strategy to encourage agricultural growth in Newfoundland and Labrador. In May 2012 the Harris Center at Memorial University published a report by A. James Quinlan titled “Building Agricultural Capacity in Newfoundland and Labrador.” The report outlines the many food security challenges that we are facing and examines the decline of farming in Newfoundland and Labrador since Confederation. In 1935, Newfoundland reached its peak number of farms at 4226. By 2006 that number had dropped to just 558. In relation to that statistic, the most recent provincial “Vital Signs” report issued by the Harris Center called our agricultural production “shameful.”  Our current farmland per capita is 0.06 hectares compared to 0.4 hectares in Nova Scotia, and the Canadian average of 1.19 hectares.

To improve our capacity and to ensure that the industry is professionalized, the Quinlan report offers some solutions to some of the major problems. It proposes a scholarship program to train young farmers in other provinces to bridge the knowledge gap while we develop our own agricultural college as an arm of the Grenfell campus of MUN located on the west coast. The report emphasizes that food is fundamental to life. It shapes our health, influences our actions, and helps us connect with one another. Quinlan argues that investing in an agricultural college would be more than just investing in education, job opportunities, capacity, and infrastructure; it is an investment in our culture. The report recommends changes to subsidies to encourage small scale producers to participate in the industry, modernized legislation and improvements in grading and inspection facilities to ensure the safety and availability of local food products, and creation of an organization to provide business and marketing support to small scale agricultural producers.  It suggests looking at ideas such as a co-operative for grading and candling of local eggs to encourage greater market participation by these small scale farms. The conclusions of the report are clear. Increasing the agricultural capacity of this province is essential to enabling the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to be self-reliant and food secure.

Who knows if Sprung would have worked if it was given more time to develop or if different crops and/or markets had been researched? Could we have had a thriving hydroponics industry with cheap local produce? We will never know the answer to that question, but we do know that the time is right to shake of the dust and try it again. After all, we have to do something to relieve the strain of importing expensive outside food and the added costs to our ailing healthcare system. We could do it if the will was there. It’s happening everywhere else. So what are we waiting for? We just need to forget about Sprung.

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