For 35 years, a farm in eastern New Brunswick produced an invaluable commodity – knowledge.
The Hervé J. Michaud Experimental Farm was established at Bouctouche, N.B. in 1978 by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to serve the regional needs of the francophone farming community. The farm provided new knowledge about sustainable fruit and vegetable production practices. It started small at first, with a few projects aimed at demonstrating the unique agricultural potential of the soils in this climate.
By the time it closed in April 2013 in a round of federal budget cuts, the farm had pioneered research in fields as varied as using clam processing waste as a form of agricultural lime, developing an over-wintering system for leeks to extend the growing season, and proving the viability of sweet potato as a crop for Maritime growers.
The research generated from the farm had a direct impact not only on growers in New Brunswick and neighbouring provinces, but also in countries with similar northern temperate climates, such as Poland, Romania, Estonia and northern Great Britain.
“It was a real gem,” says Jean-Pierre Privé, the lead research scientist at the farm. “It generated information that resonated across the world.”
Privé, who worked at the farm for more than 20 years, says the staff that worked there was the institution’s real strength. “It was a good marriage of satisfying Canadian values – fully bilingual, effective, productive.”
“We cannot lose this infrastructure,” he says with a passion that goes beyond concern for his own career prospects. “If we lose it, it will never come back and we risk breaking that connection with the land.”
His enthusiasm for seeing the experimental farm continue is shared by others in New Brunswick. Really Local Harvest, a farmers co-operative based in Dieppe, has initiated a project to reorient the mission and mandate of the farm and to see if it can be managed as a viable private enterprise in future.
“The agriculture industry has lost so much in terms of assets and capacity,” says Mathieu D’Astous, Executive Director of Really Local Harvest. “This farm built knowledge to help growers be more profitable. It had the ability to try new things and take risks that farmers can’t afford to take in terms of testing new products and techniques.”
Since its inception, the research farm was fully funded by the federal government. “We will have to think outside the box now,” D’Astous says, “to see if we can set up a viable, self-sufficient plan to sustain the farm.”
Privé has a few ideas in that regard. One is a continued focus on research and development that is specifically geared to the Maritimes. Next is an extension stream that would transfer the research done at the farm to growers in the region, who can then apply it in their own production.
He also sees an educational aspect to the farm, linking with local universities, community colleges and high schools to motivate students to pursue careers in agriculture. The farm could provide them an opportunity to gain practical experience.
Lastly, Privé envisions a commercial aspect to the research, with small and medium enterprises setting up business at or near the farm. “This stuff has to be picked up,” he says. “Someone has to make money off it.”
Privé sees the research farm as having the potential to drive profit for the region, where jobs are scarce and traditional agriculture and aquaculture are dwindling. “Research and development is what puts us at the forefront,” he says. “It develops commerce and encourages industry to come here. We were helping growers and industry become more profitable and put money into the community.”
Without locally driven research, farmers are forced to rely on information developed in other regions, or often in other countries.
The Really Local Harvest Co-op received provincial, federal and industry funding to conduct a feasibility study of what the future might hold for the farm. The co-op has until September to complete the study and prepare a business plan. If it is accepted, negotiations will begin with the federal government over how to proceed.
Rustik will continue to follow developments around the fate of the farm.