New-age farming opens opportunities for local farmers: Dolter

Cory Hurley
Published on September 4, 2013
Kim Thistle harvests sweet green peppers for 40 families that have their orders in for baskets that are currently being prepared. — Star photo by Geraldine Brophy

Part two of three

CORNER BROOK  There’s some new-age farming hitting western Newfoundland, and Sean Dolter says it has only just touched the surface of what could become a year-round industry.

Dolter and his wife Kim Thistle run the Greenhouse and Garden Store in Little Rapids. Focusing on gardening products and services, the business has flourished since 2000. In the past few years, they have expanded to include fresh produce.

After bedding-plant season, an empty greenhouse was put to use. The couple started producing a diversity of vegetables and fruits for community-supported agriculture baskets. They have grown and sold rare produce like Korean red garlic, unique beans and peas, eggplant, squash, and zucchini.

Dolter said there is room for growth, but it is a market of quality over quantity.

“It is about trying to keep a niche, almost like a boutique, market for vegetables and a little bit of fruit,” he said.

It is endorsed as local produce that is environmentally friendly and a healthier alternative. Dolter said there are no chemicals used, and they produce between 12-20 products depending on the time of year. Sometimes the customer does not even know what they are getting, so they supply suggested recipes on their blog and with the baskets.

Experimentation needed

It is just one example of the experimentation Dolter believes is needed for the agriculture industry to grow in western Newfoundland. The use of a greenhouse environment opens the door to a whole new world of produce. However, there are also many challenges, he said.

New agriculture methods require new technology. There are unknowns around greenhouse farming, and using such a facility in the middle of summer for fruits and vegetables requires some delicate handling.

“With annuals, you never have to worry about ventilation,” he said. “But, if you have vegetables in greenhouses in July and August, with 27-35 degrees (C), it gets pretty hot.”

While he does not see their vegetable production ever growing into a large-scale operation, perfecting the methods is something he is very interested in. New technology goes hand-in-hand with knowledge and expertise — something lacking in this province, according to Dolter. That is where he said government officials need to step in.

“Our government  has to support making or providing professional development opportunities for the agriculture officials,” he said. “You cannot learn in a closed and isolated environment.”

Officials need to travel to conferences to learn about new horticulture products. Then, they have to pass along this information to the farmers. This training and expertise cannot fall upon the shoulders of small-scale farmers.

“We can’t afford, especially on an island, to be burning oil to heat our greenhouses in order to produce a vegetable that not a lot of people put value into,” Dolter said.

Paying a Canadian wage to produce food, and being cognizant of energy expenses, puts local farmers at an unfair advantage in that global market place, he said. While employers struggle to keep costs down, employees do not want to do such labour-driven work for low pay. Finding employees can also be complicated by it being seasonal work, suggested Dolter.

The consumer

The local consumer has become more knowledgeable and educated in terms of supporting the local buyer. However, producers have to do a better job of promoting and making their products available, Dolter said. He added that Colemans grocery store does support locally grown vegetables, and makes an attempt to buy local produce over the imported. That, along with more of a movement by other grocers to get local product in the stores, has increased the market for local farmers.

The Little Rapids man said farmers markets are also key to the industry, but haven’t been sustained locally. It has to be vendor-driven, said Dolter, and that has not been the case. He said generally what farmers have been producing, they have been selling. A market is generally not an issue.

Dolter said there is a positive future for the agriculture industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. Despite the barriers, there are advancements being made. He hopes that continues for years to come.