Documents: Donna's Picks:

PEI Farm Centre looking to create Legacy Farm
by Andy Walker, Island Farmer
September 1, 2013

A project spearheaded by the Farm Centre Association could soon be breathing new life into the Charlottetown Experimental Farm.

The farm, located just off University Avenue, now sits largely unused since Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada moved its research component to Harrington Farm. However, if the association proposal becomes reality, 8.6 acres would be transformed into a "legacy farm" that would both honour the past and present achievements of the Island farming community, provide horticultural therapy and be a training farm for future chefs.

The proposal was unveiled during the recent PEI ADAPT Council field day. The association has been working with Common Good Solutions, a Nova Scotia based consulting firm, to ensure its long term viability. Both Adam MacLean of Common Good and Phil Ferraro were on hand to make a pitch for the proposal. Ferraro is both the executive director of ADAPT and the manager of the Farm Centre.MacLean said the idea surfaced as the Farm Centre Association met with stakeholders to examine the future direction of the building. He added "a need was identified for educational programming, as well as demonstration farm activities." Ferraro said the former experimental farm property seemed like the ideal setting.

Both men said the key to the success of the venture is in establishing partnerships. Already the association has been working with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Culinary Institute of Canada at Holland College. The consultant noted "we are now ready to engage a broader audience in the development of this agriculture and urban farming "social enterprise."

He explained the new site will have an agricultural awareness component to "commemorate the significant achievements of our present-day Island farmers, while reflecting on our agricultural legacy and possible futures." Adult education and training seminars will be offered at the site, featuring food and farm skills.

The proposal also calls for an element of what MacLean called "horticultural therapy." The association hopes to work with such groups as the elderly, disengaged youth and those with physical, developmental, mental and learning disabilities to promote the therapeutic benefits of gardening. They also hope to work with early childhood educators to use the site for garden-based learning.

As well, the Culinary Institute will use the site to help connect its students to the agricultural community. Ferraro said the association is actively working both to identify funding sources and to establish new partnerships. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is providing in-kind contributions of scientific expertise, genetic material and landscape design. A team led by Dr. Aaron Mills will provide expertise in managing demonstration plots for a diversity of crops. ________________________________________ In Agriculture, It’s Adapt or Die July 12, 2013; Bill Spurr Features Writer,

CANNING — There’s Halifax hot, there’s valley hot and then there’s standing under a roof of clear plastic in the valley hot.

Even Andy Vermeulen, a farmer used to 70-hour work weeks, spends as little time as possible in these “tunnel houses,” each more than a hundred metres long, where he started growing cucumbers last year and is experimenting with tomatoes this summer.

“The fellas from Loblaws asked me to grow pole cucumbers, as opposed to laying on the ground,” said Vermeulen. “I thought there was really no way of doing it, but then I was in Holland and they had trellises for raspberries, and I thought that might be a way of doing it.

“You get a nice, long, straight cucumber that doesn’t have any marks on it, and you get more yield.”

Tunnel houses aren’t high tech. They make use of greenhouse practices, without the cost of erecting glass buildings. Plants are trained to grow along strings that run from the floor to the roof, as high as a man can reach. Picking is much easier than from plants on the ground.

“This is all greenhouse technology,” said the farmer. “There’s a bunch of stuff we’ve got to figure out. What the tomatoes are going to do, that I’m not sure of.”

Vermeulen Farms Ltd. in Canning grows 120 hectares of fresh vegetables, all harvested by hand, plus 30 hectares of cow corn. Next to the village of tunnel houses is an eight-hectare field of green peppers. Next to that is the strawberry patch.

And strawberries are the subject of Vermeulen’s latest innovation. Innovation is a constant for farmers, at least the successful ones. Vermeulen said it’s a trait that’s both ingrained in him and forced on him.

“It’s stressful, but it sure keeps you interested,” he said. “This is an interesting time. My father started farming when he was 16; he started farming behind a horse. My son started farming four years ago; he started with a GPS tractor. If I want to get physical work done, my father’s great. If I want computers done, my son’s great.

“Change is on us continuously. You get that coming back from your customers, you get that coming back from consumers, so we look at it to see what we can do to be innovative.”

A short ride in a muddy pickup from the tunnel houses, Vermeulen pulls over next to a large field lined with metal poles topped with narrow metal tables. This is table-top strawberry production. Vermeulen doesn’t know of anyone else doing it in Canada. What he knows for sure is that it is an expensive experiment.

“I’m into this for about $300,000 now,” he said. “I’m not anticipating making money on it this year.

“In my experience with new crops, and new things we’ve done, a lot of times it takes five years before you get it going.”

If the metal tables in the four-hectare field were lined up in a row, they’d be 23 kilometres long. On top of the tables are rectangular boxes filled, not with soil, but with coconut peat.

“It’s sustainable and renewable, whereas peat soil is a limited resource,” Vermeulen said. “There’s a lot of learning here.”

Workers on the farm started picking field strawberries on June 5, and the crop lasted for about a month. The idea behind table-top berries is the grower should be able to control fertility of the plants and the size of the berries.

“You want a nice, uniform size, sort of a 20-count per pound. Then you have a nice reasonable size berry, not the humongous things that come out of California, but you have a nice size berry,” said Vermeulen.

“These were planted in May, a little later than I wanted. We’ve taken the blossoms off and we’re letting the crop grow. We’ve done that for the last time now, and the blossoms you see coming on here will bear fruit.”

Vermeulen has friends in Holland who can sell strawberries from the start of April to the end of November, through various growing methods. He’s aiming to pick his table-top berries by the first of August.

Will they taste the same as field berries?

“Good question,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s definitely a gamble. I’m pretty confident it’s going to work because it works all through Europe.”

The two large grocery chains combine to buy about three-quarters of what he produces, with the Co-op taking a smaller chunk and about 15 smaller customers dividing up the rest. During the last five years, those smaller customers have tripled the amount of produce they buy.

“I didn’t see that coming, and I give most of the (credit) to the buy-local movement, particularly what the government has done promoting it,” Vermeulen said.

The change never stops. The farm is on track to produce almost 200,000 cantaloupes this year, a smaller number of honeydew melons. Vermeulen has all but given up on radicchio and Lebanese zucchini. One of the grocery chains wants to know if he’ll plant a crop of watermelon radish. Vermeulen’s partner, Karen Corey, is working on developing a market for zucchini flowers.

“I love to cook, so I’ve always been experimenting with what we grow on the farm,” said Corey, as she put boxes of freshly picked lettuce in a blast cooler.

“Over the years, I’ve made all kinds of different versions of the zucchini flowers, and then I was talking with a food service provider who deals with restaurants. Zucchini flowers were one of the things we talked about, so he asked around and there were a few restaurants that were interested.”

Edible Matters in Hammonds Plains is one of the restaurants taking the zucchini flowers, serving them as part of an appetizer.

“We’ve been stuffing them with a goat cheese mixture, battering them with tempura and frying them,” said chef Paul Szego. “Whenever you can get your hands on something picked fresh that morning, people are happy with that.”

Vermeulen Farms has six bunkhouses on the property, where 34 workers from Mexico are living this summer. Everyone, from foreign worker to owner, works at least 12 hours a day, rain or shine.

“As far as I know, all my ancestors preceding me have always farmed, some place,” Vermeulen said. “My parents grew up in farming families in Holland, and they emigrated after the war. I was actually conceived in Holland and born in Canada.

“Most of our family grew up farming. My parents would have had 14 siblings between them, and I think there’s three or four families left farming now. They’ve all suffered through the contraction going on in agriculture over the years.”

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row