Having explored the central part of the Prince Edward Island from the Northumbrland Strait to Dalvay-by-the-Sea on the Gulf, we headed out across the narrowest part of the island along the North Coastal Drive.
On the drive to O’Leary, our destination, Susan Dalziel showed us sites, some of which will never make the top-ten tourist attractions, but were enormously interesting. For example, we learned that there is an ice rink in almost every town and she has been in many of them. Curling is another national sport, also played on ice. It may be the world’s oldest team sport.
Another example was a very colorful farmstead with buildings reminding one of the Union Jack. In 1965 when the maple leaf became the flag of Canada, the farmer said he’d always lived under the Union Jack and painted the farm buildings red, white and blue so he could continue to do so. We also saw race tracks—Susan explained that harness racing is popular across the Island. One of the farmers we met later told us that he and farmer friends don’t put money on the races, but they race for “bragging rights.” He saw it as a great way to relax in the off season.
Before we knew it we were at the Potato Museum in O’Leary. You couldn’t miss it—there is a potato bigger than Godzilla standing in the front! O’Leary isn’t quite at the north-most tip of PEI, but it is only 42 km to North Cape (26+ miles), so we were close.
At the Museum we were met by a retired dairy farmer who started out growing potatoes. He talked with us about farming on PEI. Potatoes have been grown on the Island since the 1700s. Most of the potato farms are a multi-generational family business. It is the largest potato-producing province in Canada, bringing in half of the farm income on the Island.
We were introduced to environmentally sustainable farming practices on the Island,
learning that potato farmers rotate crops, alternating potatoes and green cover crops. Among the issues facing farmers are how to balance the need to control pests and disease with the necessity of protecting the Island’s water resources and whether and how much ground water should be allocated for growers. It isn’t an easy issue. There is also an organization of organic farmers that produces has a cooperative and produces its own newsletter.
Another issue has to do with the relationship between corporations that hold contracts for growing potatoes and sell fertilizer and crop protection products to the farmers. To the outsider, it sounded a bit like owing one’s soul to the company store, to borrow from the Merle Travis song made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford
We saw potatoes being dug, cleaned and sorted for shipping and a lot of impressive, expensive equipment. We visited a climate controlled storage facility where the potatoes are kept. One farm sends its potatoes to a large potato chip company in the US. Other PEI potatoes find their way into French fries eaten in Canada and the US. Different potatoes are grown for different potato products. We were told that table potatoes may be the hardest of all to grow because they need to be picture perfect for the market.
After having a failed potato crop in the raised beds in my backyard this summer, I was pretty impressed by the magnitude of the business. The work was not only in the fields, but in the farm office where detailed records are kept. The farmers can track any load of potatoes from the time they are dug, locating specific parts of a field, until they are processed.
Back at the Potato Museum we had a potato-based lunch and sampled potato fudge. It was seriously, dangerously good, too!
The afternoon took us to another family business, Leslie Hardy and Sons on the shores of Malpeque Bay. The Malpeque oyster is still fished from dories with long handled rakes. We had a thorough induction to production and harvesting of clams, quahaugs (the large, hard-shell clam), mussels and oysters. We saw quahaugs being sorted into three sizes and those in our group who were inclined sampled them.
Mussels and oysters were on offer, too.
The day ended for some of us with dinner at the Confederation Center of Arts in Charlottetown. We had wonderful food and were conveniently located to the theater where some of our group were to see the musical Anne and Gilbert
Next: Eastern Coastal Region