Local Food with Dan Rubin of the Food Producers Forum

Dan Rubin in his garden.
Photo courtesy of the Food Producers Forum.

This week, we caught up with Dan Rubin, Chairperson of Food Producers Forum, to talk about growing food at home and Food Producers Forum. Dan Rubin is a home gardener and owner of Perfectly Perennial Herbs and Seeds. You can learn more about Dan’s work as an author, educator and musician here. He is a resident of Pouch Cove, NL.
Join Dan for “Getting Your Garden Ready,” a free webinar on Wednesday, March 21st at 7 p.m. Register online here.

A Newfoundland spring is a snowy, muddy business. Still, gardens and growers all over the province are starting their growing season from their windowsills and greenhouses. This season, growers of all levels will be swapping tips, sharing knowledge, and spreading the word about local food over at the Food Producers Forum. 

Backyard gardeners and experienced farmers, fishers, hunters and foragers are all welcome to join the Food Producers Forum, a public information hub promoting information and services to help food producers at all levels. The organization’s mandate is to help Newfoundland and Labrador move toward food security by producing more of what we eat and use right here at home.

The Forum grew out a project to create an earth sheltered greenhouse, a structure specifically adapted to Newfoundland and Labrador’s climate. Partially buried in the earth, the greenhouse would allow year-round growing at a low cost. 

“A chance conversation with a neighbor five years ago led to the concept of developing a greenhouse that uses the earth for insulation,” said Dan Rubin, Chairperson of the Food Producers Forum. “I was able to take the idea of the earth sheltered greenhouse to engineering students at Memorial University, who did a design for a 12 by 20 foot building that could be heated year-round for less than $400 a year.” 

In 2019, a group of 21 stakeholders came together in partnership with the MUN Botanical Garden to thoroughly examine plans to build a larger-scale, community demonstration version of the Earth Sheltered Greenhouse at The O’Brien Farm in St. John’s. Dave Goodyear is the owner of Newfoundland’s first earth-sheltered greenhouse in Flatrock, NL and is helping to design The O’Brien Farm greenhouse.

Take a tour of David Goodyear’s earth sheltered greenhouse.

“Here’s what was amazing; that was the best people we could find – people from the Autism Centre, Food First NL, Provincial Agrifoods, growers of vegetables, makers of fertilizers, Mi’qmak representatives – we had them all around the table,” Dan said about that evaluation process, which produced over 200 recommendations on how to design the greenhouse and also how provincial food producers and organizations could work to increase food production at the local level.

Out of those recommendations, the Food Producers Forum was born. As Dan described, there was a need for a place where food producers, from backyard gardeners to foragers and farm owners, could come together. “We needed a group to be the communications hub because community gardeners, they’re not talking to each other, and farmers, they’re not talking to each other,” said Dan. “There needs to be a place where we can develop ideas and share them to radically expand food production at the local level.”

Dan described the site as an “encyclopedia of knowledge,” which is bringing together the experience and knowledge of our province’s food producers. For all us food consumers (hey, that’s everybody!), check out the provincial map of local food producers.

The Food Producers Forum is working to build a future where people have more access to food grown locally. 90% of NL’s food is imported from outside the province, and that raises a lot of concerns about the high cost of imported food and access to food. Many St. John’s residents will remember the long grocery store lines and empty shelves after Snowmeggedon in 2020 when food transportation was disrupted.

The solution is to draw on the past with an eye on the future of food security. “What I’m discovering pretty much every day… is that this project that we’re doing connects heritage with concern about the future for our kids,” Dan explains. “It bridges generations. When I want some potatoes, I walk down the road and talk to Ted and Roy. They’re growing those red, white and blue potatoes that Ken Proudfoot developed. Every day I see on Facebook, people posting, ‘Where do I get Brigus Blues [potatoes]?’ We’ve almost lost those potatoes. We need to bring them back and keep them and grow them and provide those to our neighbors as seed.”

The organization is working on a number of exciting initiatives to promote local food production. Their current focus is to create Community Food Hubs. “These Hubs will address both the production and distribution of food by making it more local, more affordable, and more healthy,” said Dan. 

From helping people grow food to creating ways for farmers to get food to local customers, the Forum is working to make it easy to eat local. An associated initiative, the Guerilla Garlic Gardeners Project will help at-risk populations in St. John’s grow their own food by providing garden boxes to families, students and seniors. And the greenhouse that started it all? The O’Brien Farm’s earth sheltered greenhouse is under construction and you can follow updates on their progress here.

From my own windowsill in town, my wilting oregano could certainly use a more experienced hand. I’ll be visiting the Food Producers Forum to improve my gardening skills and, if I don’t develop a green thumb this summer, I’ll certainly find my way to some local vegetables.

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