We pay tribute to Dr. Jon Lien, a world renowned whale researcher, conservationist, and Newfoundland organic farming pioneer, who passed away on April 14, 2010 at the age of 71 after a lengthy illness.

“The Whale Man”

From CBC:  He received the Order of Canada and the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador as well as countless other accolades, formal and informal, for his decades of work as an advocate for both whales and fishermen. Lien saved hundreds of whales from fishing gear, sometimes driving hours to outport communities and helping fishermen pull their catches afterwards. The Whale Research Group he founded has trained hundred of students and developed techniques copied around the world. Lien was a skilled communicator with a plain – yet captivating – way of explaining whale behaviour, especially during times when fishermen regarded whales as little more than nuisances. He had a trusted relationship with a fishing community that generally regarded scientists with suspicion. And, he was at the forefront of a new generation of fisheries researchers who learned to work with fishermen rather than work around them. “He is at home behind a podium, in a fishing boat, in the belly of a whale or in a fisherman’s kitchen,” the citation for Lien’s Order of Newfoundland and Labrador said. With his wife, Judy Lien, he also managed one of the first organic farms in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

“The Organic Pioneer”

I first met Jon and Judy Lien well over a decade ago as a member of The Organic Veggie Co-op (CSA). And, as a journalist, I interviewedJon several times for his expertise on, and insight into, marine conservation, the Newfoundland fisheries and farming organically. He was awe-inspiring and passionate about his work. He seemed to live by the belief that anything was possible if you put your back into it. I feel most fortunate to have been able spend much time at the Lien Family Farm over the years. Jon Lien lived a large life and there will be a large hole left without him. But it will be filled with the knowledge he shared and the convictions he held.

For a little insight into Jon’s – and Judy’s – interest in organic farming, I’m reprinting below of an article I wrote for The Telegram and Rural Delivery on the 30th anniversary of the Lien Family Farm.

Living the Lien way is living the good life

Ribbons of light, filtering through red-gold birch stacked outside, lace the huge farm kitchen. Pops and fizzes from the woodstove play a counterpoint to muted tones on CBC Radio Two. Outside, a strutting loose-necked turkey gobbles a crescendo to muffled gossipings of layers and bantams inside the barn. Mammoth whale bones adorning the farmhouse veranda feel cool to the touch. Bold colours of ripe vegetables contrast with the soft weathered greys of wooden barns and fences. The smell is of deep brown earth and short crisp days. Fall embraces the Lien Farm.

This Thanksgiving, the Liens will hold an extra special celebration.

This year, the Lien Family Farm, which so many have come to depend upon for both good food and good advice, celebrates a journey of thirty years.

“I think the community chose us,” says Jon. For several years after their arrival in Newfoundland the couple moved endlessly, searching out summer homes and country hideaways to rent. “We had a bunch of dogs and a couple of kids by then and we just couldn’t find a place. We were going to have to move to town,” recalls Jon. Through Jon’s interest in fishing, they met people in Portugal Cove. They got to know one fisherman in particular who said he’d find them some land. “That was such a stroke of luck for us,” says Judy, “it was a very special piece of land.” The six-acre parcel came with a deed from Queen Victoria and showed the position of cow paths, leading to traditional pasturelands, across the land.

Over three weekends, with the help of friends, they built an A-frame house. “It was so cold,” recalls Jon. “I can remember pounding the ice off the boards so I could pound them on the building.” Soon they needed more space and built on to the A-frame. When it came time to roof it, Jon looked out and saw the ponds down below. “This is too good to waste, I thought, so we put on a second storey.”

“Every bit of the house is from recycled wood,” explains Jon. Most of the lumber came from the old Bowring Salt Warehouse on the south side of St. John’s. When the Bell Island mine closed down, Jon scooped up the hardwood flooring from the office. “We were in tar paper for years. Not the most orderly way for a professor to get a house,” laughs Jon, now also a world renown whale researcher.

Over the years they have added a series of buildings: a barn and paddock (complete with ponds for their flock of Canada geese); a sizable root cellar (what Jon calls a ‘little’ place holds sixteen fish boxes and shelving for root crops); a tractor shed (until two years ago they used a hand tiller); a two-storey chill building (to store picked veggies); and through trial and error and typical resourcefulness, several large greenhouses. Also nestled in the trees is a cabin, built in stages by students and visitors, now used by Judy’s farm interns.

A garden was started that first year. “A fellow came in on an ancient tractor and we broke the soil on Victoria’s birthday,” recalls Jon. “It snowed like mad.” They also broke the plough there were so many rocks. Over the years they have hauled hundreds of bags of leaves, manure, sawdust and dump truck loads of peat to create fertile ground. “I’m surprised those fields aren’t hills I put so much stuff on them,” quips Jon. According to one organic inspector, who certifies farms from Ontario to Newfoundland, theirs is the most productive per square foot of soil that she’s ever seen, an accomplishment Jon is obviously proud of.

The first barn was erected the year after they arrived, and was also made of recycled materials. Barns have held a special significance to Jon. His father gave him the old barn at the back of their property in South Dakota. He started raising chickens when he was in primary school. “By the time I was in early high school I was raising five hundred a whack.”

On their own farm, Judy and Jon have had a parade of animals. “

“We had goats right from the get go,” says Jon. “In the mid ‘70s we organized a dairy goat co-op. I went to Ontario, bought a herd of goats and flew them here.” Judy’s version of the story differs somewhat, and underscores what she calls Jon’s inexhaustible energy. While doing research on the south coast, Jon suffered a collapsed lung, the result of a shooting accident years before. “He was in the hospital in Toronto having his lung adhered to the chest wall,” she says “then he walks out of the hospital, goes to the winter fair and gets twelve goats to bring home.”

Then came Frank and Trudy, the car chasing pigs. “They were characters and good friends, they didn’t have to be barred in,” says Jon. The Liens regard all their animals as friends. “Some of them just stay longer.” “

“Living on the farm you learn a lot about life and death,” says their daughter Maren from her home in New Hampshire, “you see it as a greater cycle.” “Friends would come over and dad would tease, ‘We’re having Harry the Chicken for dinner tonight,’” recalls Maren. “They’d be grossed out. Mum and dad would always say to us ‘At least our animals have had a good life here on the farm’. I always found that comforting,” reflects Maren, “I’ve never minded eating animals that I know have been grown well.”

Now Maren returns in the summers to introduce her young daughter Teya to life on the farm. Savouring fresh snow peas right off the vine, gaining confidence around animals, and learning its okay to get dirty are some of Teya’s summer activities.

The Lien’s youngest son Elling fondly remembers growing up on the farm. “I’ve always appreciated where I grew up…even though I would usually weasel my way out of chores,” he writes from Nanjing, China where he currently teaches English. “I felt more in touch with the seasons and the earth, I think, than the people I went to school with in the city. Every year I knew when the ground had thawed enough to till it. I saw the rhubarb poke up at the beginning of the summer, and I saw the leaves burned by the first frost of fall. I knew when the winter came I would have to go into the spooky root cellar where the ghosts lived to get potatoes and carrots.”

“The kids had a lot to do with shaping the farm,” says Jon. “It was the spot where the kids swam in the summer, tobogganed in the winter. There was always a nest of kids around there.”

“People would always be around, we’d play in the hayloft, and with the animals outside,” recalls the Lien’s eldest son O.J., who especially enjoyed the birthing of baby goats and chicks hatching. Despite his interest in animals though, O.J. is now is completing a degree in plant science at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and taking courses in organic agriculture. “O.J.’s made a great contribution by returning for two summers,” says Judy. “He treats the farm like his own so everything is done really well.” This past summer O.J. conducted an organic research project on the farm. “Our certifier was thrilled with his research,” says Judy.

Perhaps the greatest change on the farm over the years has been Judy’s role. As a devoted mother challenged by raising curious minds and healthy bodies, she is now an ardent farmer, raising organic crops and mentoring students. “I put the children first for those years,” says Judy. “Later I started learning more [about farming] and realized I loved the greenhouses.”

“Over time she’s become totally passionate about it,” says Jon. “What she reads is about farming, nutrition, and food security”. “Our bookshelf is like the history of our farm,” says Judy naming some favourites like Living the Good Life, Raising Small Livestock, and Real Food for a Change.

Today, Judy no longer confines her interest solely to greenhouses. A few years ago, through her diligence and interest, the farm achieved organic certification status. The farm currently produces fifty different items from beans to zucchini, and she is always experimenting with new crops. When the Organic Veggie Co-op started up seven years ago by Mike Rabinowitz, Judy became the other producer. Today, Judy supplies vegetables for half the co-op, about fifty families, and also sells her produce through Food for Thought, a downtown health food store.

“Over the years she has gone from being a small family farm operator to a manager of a successful, ethical, community-oriented business which lots of people have come to rely on and trust,” writes Elling with obvious pride.

“We’ve always had lots of students living on the farm with us,” says Jon. “Over the years the balance has swung from whale people to farm people.” Now, they come as wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms). In the past few years the Liens have welcomed wwoofers from all over the world. “They want to accomplish things,” says Jon. “We eat together each evening and have very good discussions. That’s added a big dimension to the farm.”

So what direction will the Lien farm take in the future? “That will depend on Judy,” says Jon, suggesting Judy will probably move more to being a farm manager and teacher.

“I want to encourage young organic farmers,” says Judy, who recently helped found NOON, the Newfoundland Organic Opportunities Network, an industry organization promoting organic agriculture.

Meanwhile on the farm this fall, Jon oversees the building of yet another greenhouse. And Judy welcomes another wwoofer to their family.

Sidebar: Rescuer of Whales

For 20 years, Jon Lien was responsible for the Entrapment Assistance Program that helped both whales and fishermen along the 17,000 km of the province’s coastline.

When Lien arrived in Newfoundland in 1968 to teach animal behaviour at Memorial University, he held a doctorate in the behaviour of Leach’s storm-petrel, a small marine bird. In 1978 he received a call that would shift his interest to large marine mammals.

A fisherman reported a humpback whale, entangled in a net for several months and gradually starving because no one had been able to help. Lien arrived and managed to free the animal. Soon other fishermen in the same predicament were calling him. Lien subsequently convinced the government to fund a research project.

Thus began the Whale Research Group – with its principal focus the Entrapment Assistance Program – that Lien formed together with a small group of assistants. Whales tangling in fishing nets have been a significant problem, often meaning death for the whale, while ruined nets and damaged equipment spell serious economic losses for fishermen. The program has provided educational programs, technical assistance and services to release entrapped animals safely. At its peak the program dealt with 150 entrapped humpbacks a year; in all, 11 species of cetaceans were released from fishing gear.

Lien’s expertise and understanding of animal behaviour has led him to be involved in a variety of management and conservation problems in waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, and more recently, in the world-wide phenomena of incidental catches of cetaceans in fishing gear. His work has included developing acoustic alarm devices to prevent collisions of marine mammals with fixed gear, undertaking policy studies on the captive maintenance of marine mammals, evaluating marine mammal disturbance, and developing fishing techniques for long-term exploitation of marine resources.

An Honourary Research Professor in the Biopsychology Programme and the Ocean Sciences Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Jon Lien currently chairs an advisory council for Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans on integrated management of oceans, marine protected areas and coastal zone management.

© Alison Dyer 2003

Elling Lien has created a website for Jon at: http://www.thanksjon.ca and the Lien family urges you to add messages and photos. A public celebration of his life will be announced at a future date. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Jon Lien Memorial Fund will be accepted at any CIBC bank.