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close this bookFood and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 07, Number 3, 1985 (UNU, 1985, 87 p.)
close this folderHousehold-level food production
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View the documentThe Javanese home garden as an integrated agro-ecosystem
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View the documentWest Indian kitchen gardens: A historical perspective with current insights from Grenada
View the documentSubsistence gardens in Newfoundland

Subsistence gardens in Newfoundland

John T. Omohundro, State University of New York, Potsdam, N.Y., USA


Some gardening in Newfoundland should be understood as more than a folkloric anachronism. For centuries, gardens have been a component of North Atlantic survive) strategies that governments would do well to encourage. The role of Newfoundland gardens in supporting coastal settlements, or sports, in the last century, for example, reveals much about the way outport economy has operated. As Cole and Wolf observed [5, p. 371], local village tradition is partially taped by adaptation to the world beyond the village.

Analysing how gardening is related to the household economy and how both are influenced by factors in the ion at large is thus a valid research strategy for understanding recent changes in both gardening and the household economy.

Without a holistic and regional approach to subsistence production, any well-meaning project for sustaining or hanging garden production will misread its dynamics and may propose the wrong solutions. This article, therefore, tamines historic and contemporary gardening in the outports of northern Newfoundland as representative of gardening in the broader North Atlantic coastal region.

After placing Newfoundland home gardens in a wider North Atlantic perspective, I shall give an account of the re-1940 gardening situation and of traditional practices. Changes in gardening patterns in response to recent changes outport life are treated in the next section, followed an analysis of the current status of gardening in northern Newfoundland. Finally, government programmes promoting home food production will be examined, and suggestions for improvement will be offered.


From New England and the St. Lawrence Gulf to Iceland and the British Isles, subsistence activities in coastal settlements have been so similar that they merit consideration as one ethnographic region [11, p. 248]. Settlements along the North Atlantic rim have evolved a pluralistic economy combining fishing, gathering, wage work, and cultivation, the products of which are used partly for sale and partly for subsistence. These mixed fishing-farming ages all have seasonal work cycles, and similar tools and work organization. Although today their larger political and economic settings are different, historically even these were similar.

From a centre-to-periphery perspective [31 ], North Atlantic rural coastal communities developed into specialized hinterlands supplying a diversified industrial core in Europe and, more recently, in North America. Households traded local resources for essential imported foodstuffs, adjusting their economic operations to ensure a trade or purchase margin within a world-wide mercantile system that they neither controlled nor understood. Living at the periphery of the economically developed centres, coastal fishermen and "crofters," small tenant farmers, contributed by supplying raw materials, but as they were relatively undiversified in their contributions they were ravaged periodically by business downturns occurring at the centre [21].

To compensate for the insecurity of outport life, North Atlantic settlers developed diversified subsistence systems which operated as an alternative economic sphere [3, 30]. Animal husbandry, small-scale plough farming, hunting, plant gathering, and home gardening provide insurance against the fluctuations of the world markets and make up for the dietary shortcomings of the few purchased imports

Since the Second World War, the North Atlantic coastal communities have undergone pervasive changes. The industrialization of fishing, the resettlement of entire communities, the arrival of new industries such as oil exploration and tourism, and heavy outmigration are common developments. In some areas, the survival of communities is still uncertain [21]. It is within this framework, then, that the island of Newfoundland has to be understood.

Newfoundland was settled relatively recently, a fact which makes it somewhat atypical of the wider North Atlantic region. The year-round population of the island exceeded 10,000 only after 1800. In the early 1800s some of its resources - such as the migrating harp seals became commodities on the world market and deteriorating economic conditions brought immigrants from rural Britain and Ireland [11, p. 245]. From the outset, Newfoundland coastal residents lived in nucleated rather than dispersed settlements, a practice which generated a complex social life reminiscent of the settlers' homes in Old World areas.

Newfoundland is also atypical in its socio-political organization. After confederating with Canada in 1949, changes occurred that still influence decisions at all social and economic levels, including gardening. But although gardens in the whole region are now in a state of change, historically they have been a stable element in outport household economies.


Newfoundland gardens have many features in common with those in other North Atlantic regions: they have the same Celtic and Norse origins and have been adapted to similar limitations in labour time, arable soil, and photo-period [14, 24] . The Newfoundland gardening tradition in the last two centuries can be characterized by six features that constitute a common core and that still hold true for contemporary gardening:

1. The crops consisted of root crops (especially swede turnip), cole crops (mainly cabbage), and potatoes - all hardy, cool weather vegetables.
2. Manual labour predominated, although in some areas horse and plough were used.
3. Sexual division of labour was minimal. Apart from the fact that men rarely handled vegetables other than potatoes, men and women did similar work.
4. Garden tasks were carried out by entire households ("crowds") during brief respites from other subsistence activities.
5. Special bedding and fertilizing methods were used.
6. The crops were raised primarily for household consumption, but surplus might have been sold or traded.

Home food production before the Second World War consisted of small-scale animal husbandry, potato patches, and kitchen gardens. A household's investment in animal husbandry was limited because meadowlands close to the outport were small and, after other primary work, there was little time to collect fodder. Chickens, pigs, a few milk cows, and perhaps a half dozen sheep provided eggs, fresh meat, and milk, but rarely cheese. In some areas of the island, the animals could be fed during the long winters on cereals grown as green fodder grasses, but in many settlements stands of wild grasses were carefully tended and scythed between fishing tasks. Even with women and children performing most of the labour, animal husbandry encountered a growth ceiling that did not exist in the Old World.

One aspect of Newfoundland animal husbandry was remarkable for its novelty: nowhere else in the world have settlers attempted to maintain dogs for pulling sleds, as well as raising other animals. The idea of dog teams was borrowed from Inuit culture. The teams were invaluable until the advent of snowmobiles in the 1960s, when the dog sleds were rapidly and happily abandoned. The incompatibility of semi-domesticated sled dogs with the sheep and chickens in the outports is legendary. The plight of the harried outport householder was the same as that of the farmer in the conundrum involving the fox, the goose, and the grain. Vigilance was required to protect gardens from children and livestock; vigilance, too, was required to protect children and livestock from the dogs. Only the garden was a benign companion: it fed the children, the dogs, and the livestock.

Horticulture production took place on two distinct lots: potato patches, here referred to as "outport gardens," which were some distance from the house, and "kitchen gardens," smaller in size and adjacent to the house for better care and protection. Outport gardens were planted mainly with potatoes and turnips, but could also contain beets and onions. Kitchen gardens near the house might have had cabbages, peas, carrots, lettuce, cauliflower, hops, and chives.

Since the nineteenth century, crops requiring a longer photoperiod or less acid soil, such as tomatoes, cucurbits, and cereals, have been grown in a few locales where the soil is unusually fertile and the average summer temperature adequate. Most coastal settlers, however, have found such crops too delicate for their area.

Home gardening, small animal husbandry, and the hunt provided the bulk of outport diet. Such a combination of complementary survival strategies was insurance against the risk of failure of any one of them. Gardening was subordinate to fishing, but the two were complementary in many ways. When fishing failed, outporters relied on their gardens and other subsistence products [6, p. 99] . Fish provided important fertilizer for the poor soil, and disused fishing equipment was utilized either in working the soil (for example, anchors were used as ploughs) or in storing garden produce {old boats became root cellar roofs). Fishing and gardening also complemented each other in terms of labour and time allocation: they flourished under opposite weather conditions.

In dual economies with both a subsistence and a market sphere, one economic activity will be subordinate to another. In Newfoundland outport household economies, gardening was subordinate to the outports' main means of subsistence fishing, logging, or trapping - and garden work was done during breaks in the other routines [9, 16] . None the less, gardening was recognized as a vital survival activity that helped prevent endemic malnutrition and periodic undernutrition accompanied by beriberi, anaemia, and scurvy [15, p. 19; 18, p. 99].

Outport gardens produced all the foods consumed except flour, beef, tea, and sugar, which were imported and distributed through a supply network called the "truck system," as it was tied to the passable roads on the island. Newfoundlanders traded their fish, logs, seals, and furs in an essentially cashless economy [30, pp. 22-23; 27, p. 42]. Outport gardening practices, an essential aspect of outport economies, remained unchanged for over two hundred years. Newfoundlanders' marginal economic role and the harshness of their environment kept them living as "wilderness pioneers," a curious mix of hunter and proletarian [26, 30].


By the twentieth century, Newfoundland's Victorian policy of stimulating commercial agriculture in the interior and reducing the island's dependence was no longer implemented. In 1901, most of the 150 km of cropland was under the hoe of subsistence gardeners or part-time, quasi-commercial farmers near the coast [23, p. 183]. Home production was still important before the Second World War, and had considerable economic value: outporters were producing 55 cents' worth of subsistence goods for every dollar of exportable cod [1, p. 22].

Among those subsistence goods were 54 million kg of potatoes from home gardens and small fields (or 205 kg per capita per annum), and 6.39 million kg of cabbage, according to the 1935 Newfoundland census. This produce was consumed by islanders and their livestock, supplemented by another 13.65 million kg of imported vegetables [4, p. 135].

The Second World War generated opportunities for wage work and ended the stagnant economy on the island. Because many family members migrated to areas where wage work was available, subsistence activities received less attention. By the end of the war, according to the census, the total amount of improved land had declined to barely half that in use in 1911 [25] . This decline in subsistence production accelerated when Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949. The precariousness of life that had made gardening necessary began to diminish. Unemployment compensation, retirement benefits, and welfare cheques became a significant part of household income. The fishing and logging industries were revitalized for a time, and they paid well. Roads began to connect isolated communities to regular supplies of groceries, to wage work, and to health care and other conveniences of modern civilization. Since these conveniences were declared essential, residents moved to selected "resettlement centres."

Household food production in the province fell to an all-time low in the 1960s, with less than half the households growing anything [32, pp. 86-92, 33] and with those that were providing only a small proportion of their family income in this way [8; 10, p. 115; 30, p. 41]. Gardens were smaller and contained fewer crops than before. Bad years in fishing or togging, rather than prompting a return to self-sufficiency, led to a mass exodus of young men and women to the factories, forests, and oilfields of mainland Canada. The outports thus lost many strong workers and apprentice gardeners.

By the 1960s, young married couples who should have been starting their family garden often failed to do so because they did not know how. Their own parents had abandoned gardens to do wartime wage work, leaving the younger generation with little experience. As a result, the 1960s saw outport women spending very little time in food production, even though they had plenty of leisure time at their disposal. However, in the early 1970s fish plants were constructed in the outports, and leisure was quickly exchanged for long, irregular hours of heavy work.

The precise reasons why gardening and other subsistence activities declined are debatable. It has been proposed that the loss of discretionary labour time as people took up wage work was responsible [29; 32, pp. 129, 134; 34], and in the North Peninsula outports I surveyed, this was indeed one of the reasons given for reducing the time spent on gardens or abandoning them altogether. On the other hand, it has been argued that transfer payments and the new welfare programmes reduced the value of small gardens as a winter diet insurance [30, p. 54]. A complementary thesis is the decline in family size and the family labour force due to fewer births, increased outmigration, and a demographic shift toward retired couples and elderly single people residing in the outports.

Dyke [8] noted a correlation between the maintenance of home gardens and dependence on inshore fishery, but few systematic tests are available to substantiate such claims. Also, with the arrival of a cash economy, conspicuous consumption appeared and changed Newfoundland lifestyles in emulation of twentieth-century mainland Canada [32]. Consequently, "gardens, goats, and berrypicking" were stigmatized as the remnants of a backward life [2, p. 27; 20, p. 50].

An unpublished 1981 study by Robert Hill [12] examined the full range of non-cash production by residents in three towns, on the west, north, and south coasts, and two villages, one in Labrador and the other near St. John's, Newfoundland. The study of the towns showed that high employment in plants processing fish or other commodities, as well as the existence of numerous well-stocked shops, caused a decline in gardening. The subsistence gardens still in use were cultivated by households with seasonal and uncertain cash incomes, such as those of fishermen, construction workers, and lumberjacks. In 1980, approximately one in five households tended a garden.

The Labrador logging village studied by Hill was situated inland where the micro-environment was favourable to gardening. When the log market collapsed in the 1960s, the villagers began migrating in the summer to the coast for fishing, and there the environment was unsuitable for gardening. The outporters near St. John's had also gardened, but as they lived only 30 minutes from the city, they gave up tillage for new wage and shopping routines. Only one in seven households had a garden in 1980. Interestingly, in all five communities other subsistence activities, including hunting, fishing, collecting wild berries and firewood, and do-it-yourself construction, have fared better.

It is improbable that one single factor has caused the decline in household-level food production, and several outside pressures have been associated with this phenomenon. These factors include a town's primary occupations, microenvironments, and proximity to market, and vary from one locale to another.

Beginning in the 1970s, the recession, the energy crisis, and inflation devalued transfer payments and sent migrant workers back from mainland Canada to their outport homes. The wholesale rejection of traditional ways slackened, and Newfoundlanders realized that progress toward the great Canadian mean, if it occurred at all, would be much slower than anticipated. Despite drastic socio-economic changes, Newfoundlanders began to value the culture of their elders, including gardening and keeping animals.

Gardening's precipitous decline slowed, and in some places ceased. In order to explain this decline and eventual reversal, I constructed an ethnohistory of gardening for three northern Newfoundland communities: Main Brook, where logging and white-collar jobs predominated; Conche, an inshore codfishing community; and Plum Point/Brig Bay, where households were engaged in white-collar work, construction, logging, and fishing. My initial hypothesis was that: those who continued gardening belonged to the lower and riskier income group; they would have more household members available for garden work than non-gardening families; and they would pursue traditional occupations, such as inshore fishing.

In Main Brook, only 50 per cent of the households had ever gardened; migratory lumberjacks and some white-collar workers did not take up gardening when they moved in during the early post-war years. The half that gardened sold to the half that did not. By 1982, 40 per cent still gardened; animal husbandry had disappeared in the 1960s when a town ordinance was passed to control free-ranging animals.

In Conche 80 per cent of households had gardened in 1961, selling vegetables informally to neighbouring outport communities. Animal husbandry was on the decline, and the last animals were slaughtered in 1969 when the road came in. Forty per cent of the households gardened at that time, and the percentage was the same in 1982.

In Plum Point/Brig Bay, contiguous outports on the Straights of Belle Isle, 81 per cent of the families had gardens in 1965. During the next few years, roads and a secure supply of merchandise reached the communities, whereupon gardening slumped in acreage and cropping variety but not in the number of participants. Animals were gone by 1967, but in 1982 85 per cent of the households were gardening!

Research findings show the initial hypothesis to have been incorrect. An analysis of the socio-economic levels of the households indicated that about half the households in the "comfortable" and "average" income categories had gardens, compared to only one-quarter of those in the "struggling" category. The mean number of able-bodied workers per household of gardening and non-gardening households differed only minimally, while participation in traditional occupations, such as inshore fishing, did not imply a higher incidence of gardening. Also, shopping facilities did not have the impact on gardening that was expected (tables 1 and 2).

Thus, when there was no longer an absolute economic imperative for gardening, families who gardened purely for necessity stopped. Those who continued gave various reasons: saving cash for other purposes; the enjoyment of garden work; the advantages of home-produced food, such as better taste; and self-sufficiency as a matter of family pride. Gardening also seemed to be a symbol of a close-knit, hard-working family [15, p. 19]. Such middle-class values were brought out in interviews with gardeners. Non-gardeners' replies were as revealing: gardening was associated with being "peasantish" and with the backward "outport" past. Non-gardeners also thought of themselves as being "lazier."

This outline history of outport subsistence gardening illustrates changes in a local tradition caused by the combined influence of ecological conditions, encompassing political and economic worlds, and community social Organization. In the face of continuing uncertainty and relative deprivation, Newfoundland outporters are preserving the one feature of their past which supported them by its resilience and diversity: the household subsistence economy. Gardening, rabbit snaring, berry picking, and rearing an occasional heifer or pig helped soften the blow of downturns in the economic cycle.

TABLE 1. Decision to Garden and Number of Household Workers, Main Brook and Conche, 1982a

Number of
Household Workers
Number of Households
Total Gardening Not Gardening
0 4 2 2
1 25 7 18
2 118 46 72
3 38 17 21
4 26 11 15
5 15 6 9

a. An adult-equivalent worker is between 15 and 75 years old.

TABLE 2. Decision to Garden and Socio-economic Level, Main Brook and Conche, 1982

Socio-economic Level
of Household

Number of Households

Total Gardening Not Gardening
Secure, comfortable 38 19 19
Average, middling 107 50 57
Struggling 81 20 61
Total 226 89 137

a. As defined by panels of judges from within the outports.


Newfoundland's traditional policy of stimulating local food production to reduce the island's dependence upon imports had waned by the twentieth century. The interior development strategy had appeared not to pay off [1, p. 29] . But when the island went bankrupt in the Great Depression, a British caretaker government assumed control, returning to the idea that improving self-sufficiency was one of the few alternatives to the uncertain venture of codfishing [7, p. 47]. Bonus incentives were awarded for agricultural land development and a disease-resistant potato stock was successfully introduced. Agricultural extension efforts increased. Indigent families were resettled on farmland, while fishermen were exhorted to take up the supplementary cultivation of subsistence crops.

None the less, the caretaker government inherited the long-standing official bias toward the promotion of commercial, mechanical agriculture and the denigration of home-gardening traditions. Outport cultivation and fertilization techniques are contrary to modern agronomic thinking and were decried by some publications. Others, in an attempt to diversify the garden vegetable crop, recommended mal-adapted species, like tomatoes and maize.

After confederation in 1949, the official attitude toward subsistence gardens was an ambivalent one. The Canadian Ministry of Agriculture made impressive advances in breeding canker-resistant potatoes and sought innovative outport gardeners to experiment with the new strains. Unfortunately, the ministry had no programmes for home gardeners, as these were viewed as conflicting with efforts to help the struggling commercial farmer.

Finally, in the 1970s, emphasis again shifted to self-sufficiency, development from inside, and the need to adjust "to a pattern of consumption somewhat different from that of the mainland" [1, p. 37]. Local institutions, such as the Memorial University and the Newfoundland Provincial Government, explored ways of assisting outport gardening as one alternative to a welfare culture [13] . The programmes undertaken included: making available certified seeds at planting time; sponsoring gardening seminars; building greenhouses and community pastures: weekly radio broadcasts; newspaper columns; and inclusion of gardening in the school curriculum. Many of these were generated by locally run rural development associations, which receive assistance from the Provincial Government.


Far from registering success on all levels, the Rural Development Program has supported projects which have failed - community greenhouses, for example [191. The failure rate of projects seems highest following the construction phase, when managerial skills are needed for the establishment of a routine. Local initiative in programme design and implementation is important. However, problems resulting from local ecological and social conditions as well as from external influences exist at all levels of the gardening complex and must be confronted before even locally initiated gardening projects can succeed. Solutions are often simple but require perseverance by all parties involved. Examples from the recent Newfoundland efforts to revive family gardening illustrate this point.

Root and tuber crops are vital to Northern Hemisphere household food production. However, diseases that attack root and tuber crops are endemic in Newfoundland soils. Introducing disease-resistant crop varieties helps, but outporters often prefer the taste of susceptible varieties.

Related problems have resulted from co-operative enterprises. Community garden plots permit an economy of scale in liming, fertilizing, and cultivating. Unfortunately, some of the most popular potato varieties are not resistant to disease, which is transmitted by contact. The use of one machine by community garden personnel for all family plots rapidly spreads the disease.

Roads, while aiding intercommunity mobility, have also increased the possibility of theft, while retail shopkeepers, offering imported vegetable produce, oppose government programmes in support of home production. Moreover, changes in architecture caused by the modernization efforts of the post-war years have reduced the number of suitable places for overwintering garden produce.

While the Government subscribes to the policy of increasing small-scale food production locally, government unemployment and welfare regulations, on the other hand, discourage gardening principally by defining home-grown produce as unreported income. Also, Crown land, which is what surrounds the outports and borders the roads, is becoming more tightly regulated, making it increasingly hard for individual families to claim suitable garden land.

Finally, well-meaning development agents exhibit a relative ethnocentrism as regards modern technology. Natives themselves, they tend to feel that gardens need more machines and a higher cash input. Outport gardeners, on the other hand, are looking for a secure return on small investment. I interviewed an agent who was raised in a Newfoundland region where gardens were ploughed by horses and who to date adamantly rejects the hand-tilled "lazy beds" typical of other Newfoundland regions. Another agent related the following story:

I saw my old neighbour picking out rocks from one of his gardens, throwing them into his other garden rather than separating them. What a stupid thing, I thought. But when I inquired what he was doing, he said, "This is my cabbage bed: you can't tolerate any stones in cabbages. But the other's my potato patch: stones warm the earth, make 'em grow better." I realized he might have a point.

Fortunately, many provincial development agents have positive attitudes toward gardening and understand outport ways. Nevertheless, garden extension services should be increased and more professional advice given to local projects on a continuous basis. To date, no scientific understanding of the functioning of outport gardening technology has been developed although the need has been officially acknowledged [15, p. 10]. As Ni[171 has pointed out, promotional campaigns must be based on a thorough knowledge of contemporary practices and their rationales. This article has attempted to assemble knowledge of the Newfoundland case and incorporate it into a historical, regional, and holistic view.


The author's understanding of gardening has come from summer field trips to four communities in northern Newfoundland in 1979, 1980, and 1981 and residence in two of these communities in autumn 1982, during which time he conducted interviews with gardeners. He has also greatly benefited from the people interested in gardening at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Provincial and Canadian Departments of Agriculture. The research in 1982 was made possible by field grants from the American Philosophical Society and the State University of New York Research Foundation.


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28. R. Traverse, personal communication, Department of Rural Agriculture and Northern Development, St. John's, Newfoundland, 1982.

29. R. Traverse and B. Murray, Report on Small Scale Agriculture {Newfoundland Department of Mines, Agriculture, and Resources, St. John's, 1963).

30. C. Wadel, Marginal Adaptation and Modernization in Newfoundland, ISER Study No. 7 (Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, 1969).

31. I. Wallerstein, The Modern World System (Academic Press, New York, 1976).

32. M. Weatherburn, "Changing Ecologic Adaptation in a Newfoundland Fishing Community," M.A. thesis (Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, 1971).

33. I. Whittakker, Small Scale Agriculture in Selected Newfoundland Communities (ISER, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, 1963).

34. A. F. Williams, "The Decline of Small Scale Agriculture in Outport Fishing Communities of Newfoundland," mimeo (Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, 1964).