Labrador farm addressing issues in regional food supply-chain

·5 min read
Tom Angiers peers out from drivers seat of a tractor on his Spruce Meadow Farms in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)
Tom Angiers peers out from drivers seat of a tractor on his Spruce Meadow Farms in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)

For Labrador's remote communities, new local shipping options are providing better quality produce with a longer shelf-life.

This means less trips to the grocery store for families already struggling with the region's high food costs.

Tom Angiers is a long-time farmer who owns and operates Spruce Meadows Farm in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

By utilizing Nutrition North, a federal program which subsidized nutritious foods and essential items shipped to remote northern communities, Angiers has expanded his operations to shorten a costly supply chain.

Spruce Meadows Farm's new cold-storage facility allows produce to be stored at temperatures that drastically extend their shelf life, in some cases, by up to ten months.

In addition to storing produce grown on his farm, the new storage facility has allowed Angiers to bring in food from a wholesaler in Prince Edward Island.

According to Kim Oliver, who lives in Nain, getting fresh and affordable food along the north coast can be a challenge, with small selection and irregular schedules, as well as nearly double the cost to consumers.

"It depends on the season and shipping, and delays in shipping because of weather," said Oliver.

"The price is quite costly here in Nain, as opposed to if you're going to go to the grocery store in Goose Bay."

Kim Oliver, who lives in Nain, says getting fresh and affordable food along the northern coast of Labrador can be a challenge.
Kim Oliver, who lives in Nain, says getting fresh and affordable food along the northern coast of Labrador can be a challenge.(Garrett Barry/CBC)

One of the biggest issues, Oliver said, is the produce available has often been in transit for so long that by the time it reaches their community it's inedible.

"You have to double-check before you purchase, and sometimes even when you double-check you come home and you'll find your produce could be mouldy," she said.

Berries in particular, Oliver noted, are prone to expiring. It's a costly letdown that her family has encountered before.

"My wife went and picked up two packs of raspberries — it was $11 a pack — and when she came home and I opened them to give to my son, they were both mouldy," Oliver said.

While she can't speak for everyone in the community, Oliver said she feels that the limited supply of often poor quality produce makes everyone food insecure, and called the lack of access to good produce frustrating.

Having access to regionally based sellers like Spruce Meadows Farm, she said, gives her family and others a new avenue to access cheaper, fresher produce.

"A pack of berries here was $11, but with Tom [Angiers] it was significantly lower," she said.

"The price with the shipping was probably $8 for that pack of raspberries," said Oliver. "And it's better quality, so that's really important."

New routes means less spoiled produce

Items can often travel long, transcontinental routes before reaching Labrador.

With Spruce Meadows Farm's cold-storage unit and produce from P.E.I., Angiers' venture has shortened the distance which produce travels before reaching communities along the coast.

For Wendy Keefe, a resident of Black Tickle who previously ran an interdependent grocery store in the community, Spruce Meadows Farm's model provides fresher produce with long-term cost benefits.

"I don't know if I'm saving off the top price-wise, but in the long run I'm saving, because [their produce] is lasting longer," Keefe said.

"I have a container of lettuce in my fridge that's been in Black Tickle for three weeks, and it's just as good now as it was the day that I got it from Tom [Angiers]."

Kim Oliver says berries in particular are prone to expiring.
Kim Oliver says berries in particular are prone to expiring.(Graham Thompson/CBC)

Keefe understands acutely the challenges in the local supply chain. There's just one store in the community, and the costs associated with running a grocery store there can be difficult.

"It's very frustrating being a store owner, because you put in your order for your groceries, fruits, vegetables — whatever you need to bring in for your customers — and you don't know what you're getting until it shows up."

Typically, Keefe said, the produce that they receive in Black Tickle is hit-or-miss, with many different factors at play.

"We don't know what the quality is like when it's shipped, how long it's sitting in the hangar waiting to come to us, then getting it from the airport to the store."

For a community without roads, Keefe said produce is transported from the airstrip via snowmobile, often resulting in damage to items like bananas, which may not survive the sub-zero trip.

"I remember seeing a store owner have a case of bananas come that were black because they were frozen," Keefe said.

Regardless, store owners still have to pay the freight and product costs for food, even if it's expired before they receive it.

That cost and lost revenue needs to be recouped elsewhere, according to Keefe, leading to higher costs on other food items.

In response to these and other challenges, Keefe noted an uptick in residents ordering produce themselves from distributors like Spruce Meadows Farm, with some traveling as far as Cartwright to pick up their groceries.

But for the time being, many Labrador communities may have to contend with their existing supply chains, which, as evidenced by one noted commodity, can sometimes seem like an exercise in futility.

"I remember time-and-time again, we had fresh berries come in when we had our store open," Keefe said.

"And you know, the case of berries comes in, and the case of berries goes to the dump because they're all spoiled."

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