A Q&A with Marc and Krista Schurman

Take a drive down Route 104 just north of Kensington and you will come across a large farming operation unlike any other in PEI. Just before the paved road turns to dirt, you will see a large collection of greenhouses, the home of Atlantic Grown Organics.

Combine a determination to farm organically with a growing market and you will undoubtedly discover a multitude of success stories, including Marc and Krista Schurman of Atlantic Grown Organics/Schurman Family Farm. With a recent expansion to a 3-acre greenhouse operation in Spring Valley, this husband-wife duo own and operate Atlantic Canada’s largest organic greenhouse to date. I spoke with the Schurmans to get the lowdown on what it takes to run a business of this scale.

Salty: The Schurman Family Farm is the largest organic greenhouse in the Atlantic region. What prepared you for an entrepreneurial undertaking of this scale and what motivates you to keep going?

M & K: Marc comes from a third-generation family farm and went to Dalhousie Agriculture College where we met. I [Krista] also got my Agricultural degree there. Though I [Krista] didn’t have any direct farming roots, I have certainly immersed myself in the farming life as it is so much more than just a job; it is a way of life, a great way to raise a family, and great to continue the tradition of good healthy food for our communities. Together, we both feel the importance of growing up on a farm and teaching Ben, Samantha, and Quinton about work ethic, life skills, and entrepreneurial skills.

Marc Schurman
submitted photo

Salty: Why do you choose to grow organic?

M & K: We grow organically for many reasons. First we pride ourselves in growing food people can trust. For many people, there is less understanding of food production and the term ‘organic’ (which should only be used if you are certified) will help educate and develop knowledge in how our food is grown. We feel that the quality of our produce can be linked to the healthy soil and environment we create following the organic standards. Organics has also given us many opportunities to be able to have our produce in homes across Atlantic Canada and that feels great to be able to do that. From the grower perspective, organics challenges us, giving us only the tools mother nature gave us. To balance all the biology of the growth of the plants and manage any pests that may try to invade [the greenhouse] involves significant environmental factors to control and ensure the biology of our greenhouse is happy and healthy.
Salty: In your experience, are organics a growing industry?

M & K: We believe the organic industry is growing. With the industry growth we have seen, it has enabled us to grow our plants 365 days a year in our greenhouses and bring fresh veggies to our loyal customers. I think more and more people are seeing the value they receive when they invest themselves in purchasing organic food for their families. As our communities are more urban-based and people lose their connections with the land and agriculture, Certified Organic will continue to give people assurances that what they are buying is the most wholesome food possible.

Salty: What vegetables are you producing and on how many acres do you grow this food?

M & K: At Schurman Family Farm, we grow produce for sale at two PEI farmers markets, our CSA Veggie Boxes, partner with other CSA Farms, as well many stores across the region under our Atlantic Grown Organics name. We grow beefsteak (hothouse) tomatoes, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers for our wholesale customers but then add many other crops for our devoted personal customers like eggplant, many kinds of lettuce and greens, herbs, and the list goes on. We started growing in the greenhouse because we saw the need for local fresh produce all year round on PEI and in Atlantic Canada, and we really grow only in the greenhouse because we try to specialise in that and do the best job possible. We built our first greenhouse in 2001 and converted to organic in 2005. It seems every year we have a project on to try to improve what we do and now we are about three acres undercover.

Salty: A greenhouse of this size and specialization must require both a dependable and skilled workforce year-round. Who do you hire to work in the greenhouse?

M & K: There are many tasks that must been done in our greenhouse seven days a week. As our society has gotten further away from a connection to agriculture production, it has become increasingly difficult to find Islanders that want to do the work and are able to do the work. We are proud of our workers and proud to say that we are able to not just support up to 15 Mexican families every year, but we support their extended families and communities that have very little other options for earning a decent wage. It is also very important to us to have skilled labour. Our Mexican workers have many skills in greenhouse work; they know how to take care of the plants and harvest the produce, as they have been doing similar things all their lives. We also have employees that have university degrees specialising in Agronomy in greenhouses. We have very little production or technical support in this industry, especially in Atlantic Canada, so developing an educated skilled team is very important. We learn a lot from the knowledge they bring.

Salty: How do you heat the greenhouse?

M & K: Up until 2018 our heating was 100% carbon neutral—we burnt crop residues for heat locally sourced five minutes from our farm, but this winter we did have to add an oil boiler that burns recycled oil. We will only have to use this on the coldest of days.

Salty: How do you manage plant disease and pest control in the organic greenhouse environment?

M & K: Pests and disease is one of the biggest challenges in the greenhouse. When we create optimum growing conditions for the plants, it also creates the perfect place for the unwanted pests and diseases. The first line of defence for us is not what most people think. We use our heating and ventilation to optimise the environment for the plants and keep the temperatures and humidity controlled. Often people are very surprised to learn we have to heat in the summer, as this time of year can be the highest incidence of disease. For example, blight in our tomatoes could be a real problem with the high humidity in the greenhouse, but we heat it early in the morning to dry the air.
Our second major defence against pests are natural biological insects. Everything has a natural predator so we introduce ‘good’ bugs that eat the ‘bad’ bugs. Keeping our biological environment healthy is key, our ‘good’ bug population must be present at all times, as well as bee hives for pollination. In organic production there are some natural pesticides available, however these are used minimally as they also can harm the natural biological environment that we work hard to build.

Greenhouse tomatoes ready to go to market
submitted photo

Salty: From seed to harvest, what does the lifespan of a plant in the greenhouse look like?

M & K: We do grow all our own plants right from seed. That way we can be assured we get the quality we need when we transplant into our houses. We have a propagation room where we start our seedlings and then transplant to the main greenhouse, often times intercropping the new young plants in amongst the older crop. Our crops are staggered depending on the light intensity for the time of year and when our customers need the most produce.

The tomato crop is the only seedling that we “graft.” This process is very sensitive and specialised. It is the process where you take a strong root variety, with high disease resistance and attach it to a strong top variety, which is high in yield and quality fruit production. The two plants are cut on the same angle, at the same growth stage and healed together with optimum high temperature and humidity. The tomatoes and cucumbers are able to be grown all year, however the peppers and eggplant need such a longer growing season it is too hard to manage an uninterrupted growing season. We are able to grow the greens all year but there is a big seasonal change with the loss of natural sunlight. We work hard everyday to find the right varieties to grow in these conditions.

Salty: Food safety is a hot topic in the agricultural and food industrys alike. How does Schurman Family Farm/Atlantic Grown Organics ensure food safety to customers?

M & K: We are certified organic. So, for that we need to keep records of many of the things we use and do in the greenhouse and we have an audit of our processes every year. We are also certified for food safety so that we can assure all our customers that we are following the most stringent possible rules to ensure that the food you eat are always safe.

Salty: You are both very busy and volunteer-oriented individuals. What agricultural organizations do you belong to and why do you choose to contribute your time to these boards?

M & K: Marc is currently President of PEI Certified Organic Producers Cooperative and sits as a member for the board of the Organic Federation of Canada. Krista is treasurer of the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market Co-operative, as well as a member on the Atlantic Outstanding Young Farmers [recipients in 2006]. We are involved with those organisations because of the good they do both for the farming community and from the local to regional to national levels. It does take a lot of time to volunteer for these boards but it is an investment in the future of our industry and communities.

With product in large retail outlets like Sobeys and Atlantic Superstore as well as local grocers, farmers’ markets, restaurants, and CSA boxes, the Schurmans demonstrate the environmental and economic profitability of the local organic agricultural sector. As a family business, with each of their children actively involved in the farming operation, the future of this farm is bright.


About Hanna Hameline

Hanna is a graduate of UPEI with a B.A. in Sociology. She has completed trainings in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Shambhala Meditation, and Maritime Yoga College 200-HR Yoga teacher training program. Hanna currently works as the communications coordinator for the PEI Certified Organic Producers Co-operative and has volunteered with PEI Food Security Network, ECO PEI, The Voluntary Resource Centre, and Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. She warmly invites you to contact her with any food lovin’ stories or ideas you would like written about.

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