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Secondary processing key to growing Newfoundland and Labrador agrifoods: minister

Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne was at the Marine Institute in St. John’s Tuesday to speak about food production and food security.
Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne was at the Marine Institute in St. John’s Tuesday to speak about food production and food security. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

Gerry Byrne interested in teaming with industry on new infrastructure, supports

Fisheries and Land Resources Minister Gerry Byrne is interested in seeing new infrastructure and operational supports for farmers in the province — aiding the planned, rapid growth in local food production.

The government isn’t establishing Crown-owned infrastructure, he said, but project proposals are of interest now more than ever.

His department wants to hear ideas on improving single farms, but also farming regions and the province as a whole.

“For example, on dairy, we do not have a secondary processor. We have a couple of small, boutique secondary producers of dairy products, such as Five Brothers Cheese and others. They’re powerful and they’re mighty, but they are small,” he said.

The province is exporting about one-third of its fluid milk to the mainland for processing, he said.

“We’re working with our dairy farmers in the province to see what opportunities, what they would like to invest in themselves, but we’ll also partner with them in investments. We can do that through some of our federal-provincial agreements and our own provincial assistance program as well,” he said.

Another example offered was on root crops and cold storage facilities.

In the fall, the province sees a glut of production from local farms. Paired with a limited amount of cold storage, Byrne said that glut, particularly with root vegetables, can drive down prices, as farmers hurry to get value from their vegetables while they’re fresh.

“Regional cold storage facilities led by the private sector — led by co-operatives, but assisted by governments — seems to me to make an infinite amount of sense,” he said.

Apart from avoiding an overheated market, it extends the period where local produce can be available for larger grocers in particular, he said.

Standards set by the larger grocery chains were part of a third example.

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Byrne said the province has provincial inspectors and the capacity to have meat from butchered livestock certified for consumption, but exports and the stocking of locally butchered meats with larger grocery chains — due to internal standards — still demand federally inspected facilities, something Newfoundland and Labrador lacks.

“Having a federally inspected meat plant makes a lot of sense,” he said. “There are options with that. You could have a standalone location, or you can actually, there are models, in the Northwest Territories and other places … where you actually have mobile abattoirs,” he said, describing essentially a transport truck containing a federally certified processing facility, able to move from one farm area to the next.

“These are things we’re exploring now,” he said, adding that the province is looking for industry-driven projects to back.

It’s not the first time the provincial government has talked about a desire for more secondary processing in the province. The difference now, Byrne suggested, is the new focus on agricultural expansion under the Liberal leadership and a change in provincial-federal relations.

He spoke with reporters following a speech during the Newfoundland and Labrador Food Forum, a one-day event at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Fisheries and Marine Institute, exploring the future of the agricultural and seafood sectors.

Byrne spoke about the provincial Agrifoods Assistance Program, but added further details after the event. In a news release from the department, it was noted there is $2.75 million available this year for projects supporting provincial food self-sufficiency, increased secondary processing and employment in the sector.

Barriers for new farmers for infrastructure funding have been pulled back, with the province now offering up to $20,000 in funding for new entrants for projects approved under the agriculture infrastructure program, one of two funding streams under the Agrifoods Assistance Program.

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