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N.L. farmers say they’re fighting food insecurity in backyards — but municipal bylaws aren’t on their side

Researchers and farmers say municipal farming and homesteading could provide one of the answers to Newfoundland and Labrador's food insecurity problems, but outdated legislation around keeping livestock in residential areas is working against their goals.

Advocates urge province to change outdated legislation, allowing residents to better produce their own food

A man in a camouflage-jacket feeds baby carrots to his goats.

Just weeks after Frank Brown was ordered to remove all the farm animals from his property in the rural community of Summerford, N.L., he's at the Gander International Airport picking up more animals: 1,200 chirping chicks that sing a high-pitched song and garner looks from travellers as they're wheeled out of the airport.

These day-old turkeys, pheasants and chickens — cute for now, says Brown — arrived in cargo crates from Ontario, and will be sold to residents in nearby communities, where they'll live in backyard chicken coops and eventually become meat and egg producers.

"There's a demand in central Newfoundland, on the coastlines, for eggs that we cannot meet," said Brown, owner of Larissa's Farm and Hatchery, located in Summerford, a coastal community about 400 kilometres northwest of St. John's.

"People want fresh, they want local and they want stuff they know where it came from — not off a shelf in a grocery store that's a month old."

The trouble with Brown's business plan is that backyard chickens — or homesteading of any kind — is technically not permitted in most towns in Newfoundland and Labrador. But farming advocates are pressuring the province to change that, citing backyard farming as a fix to the province's food insecurity problem and a way to prevent municipal kerfuffles, like the one Brown is currently in.

Nic Fairbridge, a researcher and farming advocate, did an exhaustive review of provincial and municipal regulations related to agriculture in Newfoundland and Labrador. He found that outdated standards — based on the archaic pre-confederation 1947 Agriculture Act of the U.K. — are restricting farmers and hampering efforts to promote food security and food equity.

"The way it's written in that kind of legalese jargon … it ends up blocking every fruit tree, every raised bed and everyone," said Fairbridge.

Although the regulations exist, not all communities enforce the restrictions.

"When one person in the community perhaps takes it too far or there's a complaint that comes in, once the council is aware of the issues, they then have to act," said Fairbridge. "They're held to uphold those regulations."

He says it's not uncommon for municipalities across Canada to struggle with the legalities and logistics of people who want to keep livestock in residential areas.

N.L.'s food insecurity issue

However, in Newfoundland and Labrador, there are high rates of food insecurity. According to Food First N.L., a provincial, non-profit organization concentrating on food insecurity, there are a variety of issues contributing to the problem. The province has the fewest farms in the country and there's a limited supply of produce at any given time because of ferry delays. Also, many communities don't have a standard grocery store.

"We ship in most of our food," said Fairbridge. "Labrador is rural and remote. Newfoundland itself is an island. So we're very reliant on large shipping lanes that are disrupted through things like Snowmageddon or other issues."

As the climate changes, experts predict that Newfoundland and Labrador will experience more extreme weather events that can cause road blockages and ferry delays, preventing food from getting to its final destination.

Food First N.L. notes that just over 13 per cent of households in the province are considered food insecure, meaning they don't have ready access to enough food due to financial constraints.

The provincial government has made a commitment to become more self-reliant when it comes to food, and says it's met its goal of doubling commercial food production in the past five years.

Urgent call for new food planning policy

Fairbridge says the current legislation around municipal farming is counterproductive to the province's plan to grow more local food.

Fairbridge and farming advocates with the Killick Coast Agricultural Advisory Committee recently urged the province to amend the Urban and Rural Planning Act.

In a July 18 email to Premier Andrew Furey and various departments, the group wrote that "inconsistent interpretation and enforcement of municipal plans, bylaws and financial penalties are interfering with food production and creating conflict within municipalities."

Conflict certainly ensued in Summerford after orders to remove animals went out in May this year — protests, the resignation of five town councillors and then a byelection that attracted a record 19 people who put their names on the ballot.

At the June 6 town council meeting, Brown attended and spoke about why he's appealing the order.

"This is rural Newfoundland. This was really what these communities was built around: fishing and farming," Brown told council. He noted that he would not be removing the 100 sheep, 10 goats, turkeys, rooster, hens and rescue donkey from his property.

The town council of Summerford refused multiple interview requests, but during that June 6 meeting, Mayor Kevin Barnes put it simply: the current town plan does not allow livestock within town limits, and writing a new town plan will cost taxpayers.

"We had to do what we had to do. And that's not saying that there's nothing going to change … but we got to go through a process in order to change the town plan. Plain and simple as that," he said.

Chicks for sale

An official with the Town of Summerford said there had been complaints related to odours and animals getting loose.

But those complaints don't faze Brown, who says his farm isn't just a way of life, but a way to produce his own food.

"We take most of what we eat from the water or off the land that we farm," he said, allowing that they only go to the store for basics like flour or salt.

"I don't buy any meats from the store. I don't buy no eggs. I don't buy no vegetables."

Despite the municipal restrictions, Brown is not only adding more animals to his backyard farm — he's selling them to others, too.

After Brown and the 1,200 chicks make the hour drive to Summerford in the back of a pickup truck, he puts the word out: These chicks are for sale.

It's not long before people from Summerford and neighbouring communities are lining up outside Brown's chicken coop, holding cardboard boxes poked with holes, waiting to be filled with chirping chicks.

There's excitement and talk about the controversy in town around backyard animals, but buyers don't seem worried about municipalities not approving of the new additions that will soon be pecking and clucking in their backyards.

'Guidance document' in the works

In an emailed statement sent to the CBC on Friday, Newfoundland and Labrador's Department of Municipal and Provincial Affairs said municipalities have the ability to zone lands for agriculture uses, and to enable home gardening where councils deem it appropriate.

"Councils have the authority to create land use planning regulations and to make amendments to these," it read.

In a separate emailed statement sent earlier in the week, Newfoundland and Labrador's Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture said that it supports small-scale agriculture and efforts to increase food self-sufficiency, and is currently working on a "guidance document" to help municipalities develop regulations and bylaws around agriculture.

"The document will outline acceptable farm production practices, and animal husbandry and environmental protection requirements."

The statement also explains that communities with approved municipal plans have control of development within town limits.

In communities with "productive farmland," where farming isn't common, the department said it would work closely with the municipality to encourage inclusion of agriculture when the municipal plan is renewed.

Brown isn't waiting for any changes to legislation before he grows his farm. His chicks sold out, so he says he plans on ordering more, and is even looking into getting some cows.

"The only way those animals is leaving here is over my dead body," said Brown.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Caroline Hillier is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show.

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