For Jim Lester, his life’s work has always been a family affair. So when the farmer and entrepreneur looked at entering politics, as the PC Party candidate in the new district of Mount Pearl – Southlands, it was a decision threshed out with the family too.
Lester and his wife Michelle – she’s the vice president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture - have three children. Daughter Samantha, 21, manages the farmhouse flavoured banquet facility on Pearltown Road, which the family opened in 2010. Son John, 18, a high school student, looks after the crops and fields. “He’s definitely going to be a farmer,” says Jim. And Caleb, 12, likes tending to the animals.
The Lesters go back seven generations on this land. Their forebear, John Lester, arrived in 1836 as the 14 year old assistant to British navy veteran Captain John Pearl, who was himself a teenager when he served under Admiral Horatio Nelson during the famous tangle with the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar.
Years later, Pearl was given the land at what is now Mount Pearl as a reward for his long service to the Crown. Young Lester was charged with looking after his horses.
“By the time he was 19, he was the foreman of Captain Pearl’s farm,” says Lester. “And when Captain Pearl died, he looked after the farm for Lady Pearl.”
She left Lester 100 acres of the land upon her death. He and his descendants have been farming here ever since.
Like most of his ancestors, Lester has been a full time farmer most of his life. “I remember in high school my mother tried to convince me to go outside of agriculture for my career,” he says, smiling. He tried university for a while, but came home one day and said, “That’s it, I’m meant to be on the farm.”
Lester has proven himself to be one of the most successful and innovative farmers in the province. Along with the banquet ‘barn,’ which is used for wedding receptions, pig roasts, birthday parties, conventions and all kinds of social functions, Lester operates a U-pick patch and busy vegetable market. His latest venture is an aquaponics facility that combines hydroponics and agriculture to grow vegetables year round and raise tilapia, a fish that grows to about two pounds in weight. It’s the most modern facility of its kind in the world, he says. “It’s a zero waste facility,” he notes.
With such a busy farming enterprise, it’s not surprising Lester wrestled with the idea of entering politics.
“It was something that we put a lot of thought into it,” he says of himself and his family. “We’re quite occupied here because our farm is always growing – in more ways than one, pardon the pun… So yes it was something that we did evaluate in terms of how much time we were going to have to put into it. But I feel it’s part of my responsibility that the agriculture industry in our province doesn’t get put to the wayside. We need to continue to expand our agricultural production, we need to expand the number of people we have in agriculture, and I think we really need to make the public aware of how important it is to be more sustainable when it comes to our food production. And I think that from a political stage I’d be in a better position to do that. If I can influence our food policy to increase production by even a very small percentage, it would be a great accomplishment.”
It was his exposure to its efforts to improve agriculture in the province that convinced him to run for the PCs, Lester says. That and efforts Mount Pearl North MHA Steve Kent made on their behalf when Lester’s family encountered bureaucratic hurdles at Confederation Building. Kent was the Parliamentary Secretary for agriculture at the time.
Kent didn’t solve the problem, Lester says, but he tried.
“I’ve been really encouraged by the strides we have made in the agriculture industry under the current government,” Lester says. “They’re food production supportive.”
From lobbying Ottawa for funding for Newfoundland farmers, to supporting market development and production programs, this PC government has always been at the table, he argues. He says he likes the way the government has taken a long term view of the value of agricultural as a sustainable industry.
Though the district is mostly urban, or suburban, Lester thinks his message will find a home among voters.
“That will be part of my ‘knock on the door speech for sure,” he says. “I know in this area there are people who are concerned with food production, how we are treating our environment and there is an extremely high number of young families. I get the sense they’re concerned with issues of preserving our environment, protecting our resources, increasing our own food production.”
The other big concern for Lester is the habit the provincial government has of borrowing money to cover everyday expenses. “We can’t afford to do that anymore,” he says. “That really concerns me, not only as a citizen, but as a business person who knows that you can’t afford to keep in business if you’ve got to borrow to keep the lights on.”
Lester sees it is as the biggest issue facing government.
“We have to realize that we have to be able to pay for these services,” he says. “We cannot keep shouldering the load onto future generations.”
The reliance on a commodity as volatile as oil has to change, he says.
It’s blunt talk from a fellow running for a party that found ways to burn through mountains of tax and oil royalty revenues and still end up borrowing most years to cover the bills.
“I don’t want to be too critical, because there has been an extreme amount of infrastructure put in place, because it was crumbling around us, from hospitals to schools, a lot of it almost Confederation era infrastructure,” Lester says. “Those types of things had to be replaced or improved. Basically I think we have to be more efficient in our deliverance of government provided services and really be careful about where we are spending our money. If we can’t afford something, we’re just going to have to do without it for a little bit.”
That message is a tough sell and he knows it. “My grandfather said to me one time, ‘Jim, the right decision is not necessarily going to be the popular one,’” Lester says.
He points to the health care system noting it’s the most expensive one in the country but with one of the lowest satisfaction rates. “Our doctors are not by far the highest paid in the country, they’re among the lowest paid in the country, the same with our nurses,” he adds. “We really have to look at that and see where we can improve the deliverance of service.”
Lester says he has always been interested in the way government works. “My wife and I are firm believers that we may have our names on the deed to this land, but we’re only borrowing it,” he says. “So I don’t want decisions to be made today that are going to prevent future generations of either my family or Newfoundlanders from being able to do the same things I do and make a living from the land.”
Lester’s expectations about politics are tempered by a farmer’s practicality. “I’m sure when I get elected that I’m not going to be able to fix everybody’s problems,” he admits. “And to say that I will would be contrary to what I believe… I realize there are some issues that are just not going to be fixable. To effect 100 per cent change is not conceivable… I’ll put my best effort into it, but I don’t expect to reinvent the wheel by any means. But if myself and everyone else in government would make even a slight change to something, my God, how much better off would we be?”
Lester is holding off on the door to door campaign until the federal Conservatives choose a candidate for the riding of St. John’s South – Mount Pearl. Lester says he has already been confused by some people as being the federal candidate.
“Democracy is an important thing,” Lester says. “And the sad part about Newfoundland politics is that usually when there is a change of government, it’s a landslide change. You need an effective Opposition as much as you need an effective government.”
Lester doesn’t like partisan politics, because of the pressure on all sides to make people in other parties look like idiots. “A lot of efforts and good ideas don’t come to fruition (because of that) and ultimately it’s the citizen who pays,” he says.
“We’re headed for some real, real challenging times,” Lester adds. “And once upon a time, when we were a Have-not province, it was okay, because the rest of Canada was doing fine and they were able to support us. But we’re looking at global economic collapse. We don’t want to be on the bottom of that.”
Despite the unpopularity of the PCs, Lester remains hopeful he can win. “A couple of people told me you win an election door by door,” he says. “And polls can change three or four times between now and the election. I’m confident we’re going to put our best effort in and if people hear my message and understand who I am, yes, I am confident we will win.”
And what will the voters of Mount Pearl – Southlands get if he does win? Lester thinks carefully about his answer.
“I am an incredibly hard worker,” he says. “And a problem solver. Through the development of our farm we came up against a lot of brick walls and when I figure out that we can’t smash through them, I figure out a way we can go around them or go over the top of them. And that’s exactly what I’ll bring to the House of Assembly.”