In January, community volunteers started the Nashwaak Community Growers gardening group in the Village of Stanley, New Brunswick. I live nearby in Taymouth and am coordinating the group with Dorothy Diamond of English Settlement. The gardening group is open to anyone who wants to learn and share. We focus on chemical-free growing and low or no-till gardening.
One of the most interesting themes we’ve seen is the number of people not originally from this area. These folks have come from the United Kingdom, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Newfoundland, and some are returning home after living away for years. They all come to put down roots in New Brunswick and they are loving growing food and caring for the environment too!
This month I had the opportunity to visit the home of Gardening Group member Mark Curtis in Williamsburg. Mark came to Canada about 10 years ago, after having lived in Scotland and England (including London). Mark tells me that he had the resources to retire anywhere in the world, but he chose here.
“This place is paradise. I feel safe here. I could get the wood stove set up and I would have all the fuel I ever needed from blow-down trees. I could grow enough food on this land to feed several families. You know I could have decided to go somewhere tropical, but I can’t just sit on a beach all day, I’d lose my mind!” Eventually, Mark plans to start a hardy fruit and nut tree nursery.
As we talk about the situation in New Brunswick, Mark notes that there is a feeling of heaviness that people here have about their home province. Mark tells me that Stanley Parish has about a seven per cent decline in population every five years. Statistics Canada reported a 7.9% population loss between 2011 and 2016. We talk about how it is easy to understand that people who have spent their entire life watching our rural communities decline, would feel discouraged about the future. Young people that have grown up here are often convinced by friends and family that they ought to leave the province to get better opportunities.
The decline is real, but it isn’t imminent. In fact, some would say that we are starting to enjoy the upswing as young people rekindle an interest in small-scale farming, market gardening and a slower pace of life. It’s easy to feel that as you catch the enthusiasm that “come-from-aways” generate when they choose to live here. We also know that purchasing land for small-scale subsistence farming in other provinces like Ontario and B.C is nearly impossible for most people. With land prices in the millions, why not encourage new farmers to come to New Brunswick?
Land here certainly is plenty. Mark lives on 100 acres of land with a heritage farm house he has been gradually restoring. In 2012, Mark received the Premier’s Award for the greatest increase in energy efficiency in a home in the province. Mark is certainly in no danger of getting bored. In addition to home renovations, he raises highland cattle, sheep and chickens. For the last eight years, Mark has worked hard to improve the soil with loads of manure and well-rotted sawdust from a local mill. Soil scientist Pat Toner of the Department of Agriculture came to visit and told Mark that he had not seen that level of fertility in a New Brunswick soil before!
While living in the UK, Mark had the opportunity to bump into all kinds of people interested in permaculture and deep ecology. Permaculture is a holistic design system that uses nature as a model for sustaining human societies indefinitely, that includes food production and land management. When we first met Mark told me that he had been learning about permaculture for 15 years and the back-to-the-land movement for about 20 years. “I thought that I was completely alone in my thinking here. Finding this (Gardening) group, I was like wow, so there really are people here who know about and care about this stuff. I feel really good about that.”
Our rural history has been writ large with resource extraction and the boom and bust, single-industry local economy. That does not mean we can’t change.
We are in a perfect position here to use our traditional know-how and wealth of natural spaces to grow food and build soil, to harvest trees and build healthy, mature, mixed-species woodlots and to create farms and re-build buffer zones around waterways.
How does that create economic growth? Well there are lots of models from all over the world, but we won’t know what works best here unless we start seriously thinking about this issue and investing in rural food security, rural businesses and ecological land management.
It is inspiring to see our home through fresh eyes. It feels more secure to know that people are moving in. A periodic injection of new ideas is exactly what every society needs to thrive. The Conscientious Objectors of the Vietnam War brought us a wealth of energy that continues this day in the arts and crafts, community development, business creation and the environmental movement. Let’s welcome friends, relatives and strangers to make New Brunswick their home and let’s see our home for what it is: paradise.
Amy Floyd leads the Growing a Better Future initiative with the RAVEN (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment) project at the University of New Brunswick. She lives in Taymouth. Amy recognizes that we are discussing unceded and unsurrendered Wolastoq, Peskotomuhkati and Mi’kmaq territory when we refer to New Brunswick. The majority of farmland in the province was taken by various settler governments and gifted to settlers as land grants, without making the necessary agreements to honour the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1793.