Real People. Real Jobs. Real Adventures.

Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News

 

The man from PEI

Posted 2/19/14 (Wed)

What does a small town in North Dakota and an island in maritime Canada have in common?

Art Nicholson.

This lengendary man was a friend of my parents and although my brothers and I didn’t know him very well, we knew him well enough to know that he was quite a farmer and rancher.

And now, many years after his death, his home province of Prince Edward Island is taking unprecedented steps in its farming, much like Art did in the Hazelton area back in the 1960s.

Agriculture officials in PEI have announced they would like to turn the entire island into an organic farming system.

Seventy percent of PEI’s land is cultivated and the province currently supplies 30 percent of Canada’s potatoes and produces seed potatoes for 20 countries around the world.

That’s an area, 2,170 square miles, about the size of Delaware so turning every farm that includes, vegetables, forage crops for dairies, dairy cows and some grain, would be a huge undertaking.

But, as PEI officials have stated publicly, it’s an island and there’s no better way to secure the farmers from chemical, GMO and mad cow contamination.

Environmentally that makes good sense. But the other thing is profit.

Organic agriculture continues to grow at 20 percent annually so the consumer demand is growing at a robust rate and PEI wants to stage itself for that continued growth.

Art Nicholson made moves like  that more than 40 years ago. I remember my parents saying more than once that Art was 50 years ahead of his time.

During a time when agriculture chemicals were coming onto the scene and were to be the saving grace for farming, Art was farming sans chemicals and was using manure from the livestock to fertilize his Emmons and Burleigh County fields.

We can only assume that he brought some of that knowledge from Down East and implemented it after he bought his property in North Dakota.

Not only did Art farm several hundred acres successfully, he raised beef cattle and took considerable pride in that.

The buzzword nowadays is people want organic or grass-fed beef. That’s exactly what Art was doing in the ‘60s, but at the time his concern related to the health of the cattle rather than how much he can get at market.

Still, he never had a problem selling cattle, he never had a problem selling grain and when his four boys were old enough, they began growing most of their vegetables including potatoes.

For many years, until he retired, Art Nicholson was one of the most successful farmers in the Hazelton area.

His boys are still on the farm but have gone away from his philosophy of nurturing the earth and the livestock and instead have become production agriculture producers.

Now, PEI wants to increase the success of its 1,500 farmers of which most are already organic and some remain conventional.

A documentary called “Island Green,” explores the possibility of PEI becoming a completely organic island. In the film, conventional farmers admit that when chemicals were first introduced, they helped provide better yields but over time they had to use more chemicals to achieve the same results.

That concerns a lot of people including those in a robust fishing industry. The fear is that nitrates are starting to affect fishing off the coast of the island.

Provincial officials admit they aren’t sure if they have the political will to make this unprecedented change in family farming. They say, however, that if any of Canada’s 10 provinces were going to do it, it would be PEI because of its ocean and bay buffers to the mainland.

Talk on the island is that PEI is small enough to make the change, but big enough to make the difference. They say it can be a symbol of what’s possible, not just in maritime Canada, but all over the world.

And that’s exactly what Art Nicholson set out to do when he moved to North Dakota some 65 years ago.

He brought that old-world practice with him and through two generations now, it appears that PEI is switching back to the same practices that his parents and grandparents taught him.

Logistically, this idea will be difficult to implement, but it certainly has merit.