Cold Comfort – PART ONE

12 Aug 2005

If you follow the earth’s latitudes from France, through Spain and across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, you make a very interesting discovery. The New England coastline and parts of Canada’s Maritime Provinces are further south than some of the most productive, year-round agricultural regions of Europe. When Margie Loo, an organic farmer living near Valley, in Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island, first heard this, she was startled. “I just found that amazing. It never occurred to me that they were having shorter days than us.”

To a farmer, shorter days mean less sunshine, a reduced growing season and colder temperatures. If Margie Loo could control the temperature, she could produce crops all year, just like European farmers who had shorter days but the natural advantage of a warmer climate. She has managed to do that with the help of some innovative technology. Now, Margie Loo’s customers are eating fresh, local produce 12 months a year and, they are the ones who are amazed.

The Loo family have been innovators since Margie’s father, Gerrit Loo, arrived from the Netherlands in 1952 and started farming near Springfield, PEI. “My dad loved animals and plants and he loved to experiment,” she remembers. Prince Edward Island is famous for high quality potatoes so Gerrit Loo developed a new variety of potato called ‘Island Sunshine” which is now grown all over North America. He converted the farm to organic and when he died, his son Raymond took over and developed his own potato variety, ‘Island Sunset’. Part of the farm has now been turned into a research site for organic potatoes. “We all acquired the love of growing things that were a little bit unusual,” Margie says.

Farming was her heritage but it was not going to be her future. That’s what she always told everyone in the farm family of eight children she grew up in. “I was always adamant that I was never going to be a farmer or marry a farmer, or even have a garden!” she recalls.

Margie earned a psychology degree “to find an office job to keep me away from the farm,” she laughs. But she ended up in Guatemala working with street kids and co-ordinating refugee programs. She remembered the frightening war stories about his homeland that her father told her and she felt a need to make atonement for the cruelty and destruction she saw in the world. She looked to her roots and decided that she would return to PEI to become an organic farmer, something that was personal and could make a difference. “So, it was very much a political act on my part,” she says.

Travelling up Highway 23 between Wood Islands and Orwell in the southeast region of PEI, I keep looking for the signature rolling farmlands that fill tourist hearts with delight and farmer’s pockets with dollars. This is the romantic, idyllic countryside that made the Anne of Green Gables books world famous. However, I see a lot of trees. But as I pull into the short, narrow lane that leads to Margie Loo’s farm I am reassured. The trees give way to 25 acres of cleared land anchored by a weathered, century-old farmhouse and a profusion of crops sheltering in the surrounding fields.

Margie does the farming on this historic 70 acre parcel that she purchased with her partner, Gary Schneider in 1999. There is an old-world atmosphere about the place updated by a nod to modern technology. The wash is flapping on the clothesline and so are the plastic roofs on the greenhouses that are Margie Loo’s weapons in her quest to farm year round.

Margie learned about the power of greenhouses and the latitudes of Europe from Eliot Coleman, one of North America’s earliest and most articulate proponents of organic farming. At his ‘Four Season Farm’ (www.fourseasonfarm.com) near Harborside in Maine on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, Coleman has spent the last decade perfecting his ‘winter harvest’ system. He is obsessed with the word ‘fresh’ and has worked out a detailed routine of soil conditioning, planting schedules and greenhouse practices that ensures fresh vegetables all year round, “in defiance of our long, cold Maine winters,” Coleman says on this website. Margie heard Eliot Coleman speak at an organic conference. “He got me really excited and I came back and decided this is what I’m going to do,” she says.

TO BE CONTINUED

Brian Kienapple, a journalist, is the Nova Scotia Slow Food Convivium leader

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