Before the Pye Centre was established in 2019, the property was home to the Grand River Farm, owned and operated by Frank and Joyce Pye. Frank has since passed away, but his legacy, and the legacy of the Grand River Farm, lives on through the Pye Centre.
In July 2020, Jamie Jackman, Program Coordinator for the Pye Centre, along with Labrador Institute summer student Rachel Goudie, interviewed Joyce Pye to learn more about her history and experiences with farming in Labrador. In Part I of Jamie and Rachel’s conversation with Joyce, they talked about about her memories of the Grand River Farm, and her favourite things about farming.
Q: What was it like to start out one of the first commercial farms in Labrador?
A: Frank always used to say he was only interested in a woodlot. Both of us were working at the time, but on the weekend, he would take his skidoo into the woods and cut down wood. He got frustrated because someone else was using his trail so he said, “I need somewhere that only I can go; I am getting an agricultural lease”. With that lease he knew he had to clear so many trees per year so he said, “That’s perfect, and then we can put some potatoes and carrots in the land we clear”. So, that’s what we did.
So that was the beginning. We didn’t really have any experience, but our potatoes grew, and then carrots, and then we kept going. We had intended on starting with strawberries but that was out of ignorance because newly cleared land is not good for strawberries. So potatoes were our first crop because they can grow in the ground easier. Farming and growing things is really addictive. It started out as just growing for us, then enough for the family, then enough to give away some to friends, then others, and it just kept going.
“It started out as just growing for us, then enough for the family, then enough to give away to friends, then others, and it just kept going.”
Q: What other things did you start to grow?
A: Well we started up on the side of the highway, and every year we would think of something else and add it. We grew herbs, squash, zucchini, pumpkins. We have tried almost everything. It surprised me how good the strawberries and pumpkins did once we started growing them.
They took a lot of extra work because here in Labrador we get early frost in the fall and late frost in the summer, and pumpkins need a fair amount of time to get ripe and they are easily damaged. Frank always listened to the weather forecast; if there was a frost warning we would go out with anything we could, tablecloths, blankets, whatever we could and cover them up. It was so worth it when people from the mainland would come up and ask to pick out a pumpkin from the pumpkin patch and I would say “No you can’t, but you can come pick one out of the pumpkin house”. Once [the pumpkins] got to the point where we knew they would turn orange anyway, we would pick them and put them in the barn, and they would finish getting orange back there. It was always so fun when people would then come and pick out their pumpkin.
“…pumpkins need a fair amount of time to get ripe and they are easily damaged. Frank always listened to the weather forecast; if there was a frost warning we would go out with anything we could, tablecloths, blankets, whatever we could and cover them up.”
Q: Did you notice that the community came and rallied around the farm pretty quickly?
A: Well, Frank said whatever we grew someone would be there to buy it, and that was true. There was some frustration in the beginning as we thought we would have to go through supermarkets; trying to sell to them was a frustrating experience. When we were up the highway especially, the militaries were still on the base and they would come on Saturdays with their baskets and pick things. They would often suggest to us new things to try to grow.
Q: Was there anything that was your favourite to grow or easiest to grow?
A: My favourite was probably pumpkins because we got so much fun out of it. And strawberries too; they’re so fresh and better than what you get in the supermarket. My granddaughter was here when she was about 3 and I gave her a little bucket and I said “You can go ahead and pick”. She went down the row picking and my friend commented that she must be doing good. When she came back she was red from one side of her to the other and there were no strawberries in the bucket, she ate the whole thing. I have tried asparagus 4 or 5 times and gave up, it’s just too fussy of a plant.
“When she came back she was red from one side of her to the other and there were no strawberries in the bucket, she ate the whole thing.”
Q: Could you tell me a little bit about the hayrides?
A: They were Frank’s idea. That was this fun thing to do, and he just loved it. We grew hay so there was a lot of it on the farm. We were trying to think of what things we could add to make it more fun for families.
When we moved down to Mud Lake Road especially, we wanted something to draw people to make the drive down here. We had picnic tables and sold ice cream. The best summer was 44 hayrides through the season, and we did them for 5-7 years. The little boys in particular would love it. They would run up to Frank and say, “Mr. Farmer, can we get in your tractor?”
We added to the rides by adding a fire pit for after the ride so the family can roast marshmallows after. Inevitably people stopped in the market when the ride was over and bought a few things.
“The little boys in particular would love it. They would run up to Frank and say, ‘Mr. Farmer, can we get in your tractor?’”
Q: Any particular struggles with growing in Labrador?
A: Just about anything. The years that we get early snow the strawberries will do really well. But every once in a while, we go deep into winter without any snow until November or December and those years are really bad for strawberries. That is particular to Labrador. We had the snow fence next to the strawberries to try and gather more snow on top of them. We tried covering the strawberries with things, but it always created more issues. We tried saw dust, fur bows, but then you had all this residue in the spring it wasn’t good for the soil. Give me a blanket 300x400ft and then you got it!
Q: What is it like to see the university take on the farm?
A: For me and Frank it was the answer to a prayer when the university said they would be interested. It would be just heartbreaking to see all the work just turn into weeds and willow trees. Whatever they do will be a good thing for us. The fact they want to do some teaching and involve the community I think is wonderful because we have always tried to involve the community too.