Organic oasis

While most Islanders dig out from under winter storms, Atlantic Grown Organics readies its harvest

Colin MacLean
Published on March 14, 2014

SPRING VALLEY – It’s an overcast afternoon in March and there’s a slight chill in the air.

A deep blanket of snow covers the Schurman family farm for as far as the eye can see.

It looks like any other Prince Edward Island barnyard, waiting to be renewed by the sweet relief of spring. 

It’s the last place anyone would expect to find something alive and growing.

But walk into the main greenhouse and around a corner – and it’s like stepping into another world.

Heat, the memory of it seemingly forgotten so long ago, hits like a brick wall for visitors entering in their jackets.

Rows upon rows of leafy green plants stretch towards the cavernous ceiling, stark contrasts to the omnipresent white tinge of winter outside.

Bumblebees buzz overhead.

This oasis of life is the home of Atlantic Grown Organics; a labour of love for Marc and Krista Schurman for more than 10 years.

They built their high-tech greenhouse in 2001 and have been growing produce, mostly tomatoes and cucumbers, inside ever since.

Back then, they were both recent graduates of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College and looking to try something new, said Marc.

His father and grandfather had both been cattle farmers, but livestock had never held any interest for him.

Plants were where his passion lied.

“I think it’s just something that came naturally. Mom always used to say I’d grow plants in my sandbox as a little kid. So it’s always something I’ve liked. Livestock was just never my thing,” he said.

Anyone who looks to grow anything on P.E.I. usually considers potatoes first, as did Marc, but they just didn’t interest him. They were too normal – and the market wasn’t looking promising.

After a great deal of research they settled on greenhouse-based food production.

The idea being that you can produce fresh produce year-round and ensure optimal growing conditions, increasing yields.

It was a big undertaking, such things were virtually unheard of on P.E.I. at the time.

There were stumbles along the way, said Marc.

“It was a big learning curve – I’m still learning. But we made a lot of mistakes in the first few years. I mean they might look like they grow all easy and it’s simple, but in reality there’s a whole lot that goes into planning the plant’s growth and planning the environment to make them grow the way you want them to,” he said.

“In agriculture, no matter what kind, Mother Nature always seems to be that unknown factor. And even though we’re trying to cut her out of the picture by enclosing her, she effects us … she still plays her very powerful roll,” added Krista.

Their greenhouse is heated year round by burning wood chips and organic waste, it’s watered automatically based on the amount of light shining onto the plants and computerized windows and blankets extend, open and close based on the temperature.

After several years of operation the Schurman’s eventually moved towards organic certification.

They’d found it difficult to compete in the traditional vegetable marketplace, so they decided to specialize in an up and coming section of the industry.  They rebranded themselves as Atlantic Grown Organics about two years ago.

The move has worked – so far, said Marc.

“It’s been very positive. There’s an increasing demand for organic products. And it’s a feel-good thing. It feels good to have demand for your product and to be able to be able to grow healthy produce,” he said.

Today, the Schurman’s are growing more than 4,000 tomato plants, 1,600 cucumber plants and a multitude of other vegetables, fruits and greens.

Their produce is available a the Urban Farmer’s Market at the Confederation Court Mall in Charlottetown, their seasonal roadside stand outside the farm on Route 104 in Spring Valley and local Superstores and Sobeys locations.

Their cucumbers are in the midst of being harvested, but Marc said the tomatoes are about two months away from turning bright red.  Both crops will be harvested throughout the spring, summer and fall, right up until their replaced by the next batch of seedlings at Christmas time.

Anyone who’d like to stay updated with whatever the Schurman’s are up to can search for them on Facebook soon, they’re in the process of setting up their social media outlets and website.

Or they can just look for Marc at the market – just ask for the Tomato Guy.