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A new harvest

Gerard Cormier and Vanessa Kavanagh are working together as part of a project to help farmers offset feed costs by growing their own wheat. – © Rosalyn Roy.

CODROY VALLEY – In what is seemingly a win-win, West Valley Farms is among the dairy farms partnering with the provincial government in a pilot project to grow its own wheat. Vanessa Kavanagh is a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture currently on site to oversee the wheat harvest, which will then be fed to some of the livestock.

“Only two percent of Newfoundland is arable – one to two percent – you can actually grow on,” notes Kavanagh. “It’s difficult to grow all of the feed supplies that we would need to feed our livestock.”

Most of the province’s livestock feed is imported – about 63,000 metric tonnes each year according to Kavanagh – and represents one of the biggest expenses for dairy farms. By planting grain and oil seeds, the hope is that farms will eventually offset those costs and perhaps even become fully self-sufficient. In return, Kavanagh collects key data about such things as growth stages, harvest yields, fertilizer trials, etc.

Kavanagh, who originally hails from Corner Brook, had been training out west and was convinced that Newfoundland could, in fact, grow its own crops including grains like wheat, barley and corn as well as oil seeds like canola or soy. She’d also been working in Norway, Scotland’s Orkney Islands and Iceland.

“They’re all growing it,” says Kavanagh. “Can Newfoundland grow it? Of course we can grow it. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it here.”

Growing grains here differs somewhat since Newfoundland’s climate is more similar to Northern Europe than the prairie provinces. Wheat grown in Saskatchewan, for example, is drier than the wheat grown in Newfoundland. Prior to partnering with West Valley Farms, Kavanagh successfully grew crops in Cormack, Pasadena, Daniel’s Harbour and areas on the East Coast.

“Ours is high moisture, so the thing with that is it doesn’t keep as well, so we have to do the processing a little differently, but the quality is actually much better at this stage than if we let it get to a dry stage for feeding cows,” says Kavanagh.

Growing your own wheat sounds like a no-brainer, but Kavanagh says that the initial cost can be prohibitive. A combine harvester costs somewhere around a half million dollars, and by partnering with the department, which loans out the combine and other equipment for the project, a farm can weigh the pros and cons without making that kind of upfront financial investment.

“We thought that as a government, there’s a way to offset that risk if we have the gear,” says Kavanagh. “There’s only two combines in Newfoundland right now. One of our other program participants bought the other combine.”

By renting out a combine to neighbouring farms, the owner can help offset its high cost while still allowing smaller producers who can’t afford to buy a harvester to grow their own feed. There’s also a special seeder and Kavanagh estimates there are now seven or eight of those in the province. Upgrading technology and teaching farmers to use the new equipment is one of the goals of the project.

“They’re learning it so the day we walk away they could potentially run it all themselves,” says Kavanagh.

Last year was the first year West Valley Farms signed on to grow their own wheat, planting about 50 acres.

“It works phenomenally out here. The fields are wonderful. The climate is perfect. The yields are the highest we’ve ever had,” shares Kavanagh. “This is quite a micro-climate.”

Gerard Cormier, who operates West Valley with his brother Danny, is no stranger to crops. The dairy farm already grows its own legumes, alfalfa and hay in the Codroy Valley and grows corn in St. David’s to feed its 2,000 head of cattle. Even so, it still has to import corn and other feed from the mainland.

“First we wanted a trial plot,” says Cormier. The results were so encouraging that the farm planted 260 acres this year. “We had fields where yields were down, quality was down, so this was a way of doing some kind of a rotation.”

The dual purpose wheat, AC Scotia, can be milled for flour or used as livestock feed. West Valley grew enough wheat to make 125,000 loaves of bread or just under 165,000 boxes of cereal, which Kavanagh estimates would feed about 9,000 people.

“The only negative factor is that we still don’t have enough land to be self-sufficient, even in forage,” says Cormier. “We’re still probably 500 acres short just in forage.”

Clearing land is time consuming, and once all the brush and rocks are removed the fields still has to be prepared by adding nutrients to the soil, which can take another year or two. West Valley doesn’t have much room to expand in the Codroy Valley.

Cormier says they’re hoping to put another 100 acres of wheat into production at the St. David’s location next year, which already grows about 700 acres of corn. Cormier figures just to become self-sufficient in forage crops would require about 3,000 acres of land.

“I could see us probably growing four to five hundred acres of wheat,” offers Cormier. “Anything that we can grow here, that’s a bonus.”

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