P.E.I. research farm makes history with organic crops

The Harrington Research Farm in Harrington, P.E.I., is breaking new ground, becoming the first Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada facility in the country to have part of its operation certified organic.

'You're always looking for something novel'

Roger Henry pulls a 'finger weeder' behind the tractor, one of the things they're using to get rid of weeds without using chemicals. (Nancy Russell/CBC)
The Harrington research farm in Harringon, P.E.I., is breaking new ground, becoming the first Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada facility in the country to have part of its operation certified organic.
The organic block is just 10 of the facility's approximately 400 hectares, but has been getting good reviews from organic growers in the region. 
We'd like to see more research stations across the country go the certification route.— Aaron Mills, research scientist

"Growers have to go through the certification process and we thought, to give us a little bit more credibility with the growers, it would be a good idea if we got some land certified as well," said Aaron Mills, lead scientist on the project with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Aaron Mills shows where a bean is sprouting in the middle of the winter rye that has been crushed by the roller crimper to suppress weeds. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"It's a small community on P.E.I. and it's a small community on the East Coast so we know a lot of different growers," explained Mills.

"They really feel that we're supporting them in that we're doing research in the type of farming that they're doing," added research technician Roger Henry.  

"That gives us similarities, a bit of a bond. And you can actually talk to them about their problems and [say] 'Perhaps we'll try something here this year and see if we can solve that for you'."

'You have to think more long term'

Controlling weeds and fertilizing the soil without chemicals are two of the biggest challenges for organic farmers, and where the team at Harrington is spending most of its time.

The roller crimper is pulled over a crop to create a weed barrier and then another crop is planted in between the crushed plants. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

For example, they're testing out a gadget called a roller crimper — a machine that's pulled behind a tractor and suppresses weeds. In this case, the roller crimper crushes the winter rye, then beans are planted between the crushed plants. They're also using a propane torch to burn weeds off the soil and a device called a finger weeder.

"You're always looking for something novel," observed Henry.

In another field, researchers have planted peas with wheat, experimenting with different ratios. The peas increase organic matter in the soil and help smother weeds.

"When you set up an organic farm or research plot, you have to speed time initially figuring out what you're going to do and how you're going to solve the problems if they do arise," said Henry. 

"You can't just get a pill to solve a problem with a spray or a fertilizer, you have to think more long term."

Organic research paying off

The research team at Harrington is also looking at higher value organic crops — including potatoes that can be sold as organic, carrots and oil seed hemp as well as multiple varieties of cereals, beans and pulses.

Roger Henry uses a propane torch to burn the weeds off this bed where carrots will soon be sprouting. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

The experiment appears to be paying off.

"Traditionally they say — oh organic, you can't get any crop, it's all weeds — but that's not the case any more," explained Henry.

"We can produce conventional yields now and we've proven that here over the last two or three years."

The crew at Harrington has been doing work on organic crops for years, but said the extra step of becoming certified organic has been worth the effort.

Planning started five years ago. Three years ago, they had to stop using prohibited substances such as herbicides and pesticides and then apply to be certified.

There is now a sign marking the 25 acre organic block at the Harrington research farm on P.E.I. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Just 10 hectares have been certified organic of the approximately 400 hectares at the facilit.

There are buffers between the organic block and the facility's conventional crops.

"We'd like to see more research stations across the country go the certification route," said Mills.  

"Locally, we'd just like to increase our capacity to handle more organic research."