The heart of the matter

Mary MacKay
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Verena Varga, left, and Amy Smith have been walking in sunshine in their greenhouses at Heart Beet Organics in Darlington since they purchased their small 1.5-acre property in 2010.

Amy Smith and Verena Varga knew in a heartbeat when they’d found the perfect place to start an organic farm of their very own.

Although their search had taken them all over Massachusetts and much of the Maritimes, it was a small 1.5-acre spot in Darlington, P.E.I., that captured their hearts and imagination for their future Heart Beet Organics: Nourishing Body, Mind and Soil produce business just three years ago.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I’d own a farm,” says Smith, who with her partner now has a booth at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market.

“As soon as we turned our attention to P.E.I., everything started falling into place. It was amazing . . . .”

P.E.I. is far removed from their places of origin.

Varga, who is originally from Germany, moved to Canada with her family at the age of 13 and lived in Ontario and Nova Scotia, with summer side-trips to P.E.I.

Smith hails from Massachusetts, where she had her first full-fledged from-the-ground-up experience as a farm apprentice about eight years ago.

The couple met in 2008 at a yoga and meditation retreat in Quebec that had a one-acre organic market garden, which Smith managed for two summers.

They considered setting up an organic farm in Smith’s home state, but the buying options were nil and the land leasing choices not much better.

So they set their sights farther afield and north, focusing on the Maritimes in 2010.

“Just coming to P.E.I. and seeing all the farmland; it’s obviously something we were already drawn to and connected to — that agricultural landscape,” Smith says.

“How beautiful it is here and to see so much farmland that is still being used as farmland. Coming from Massachusetts, the majority of the farmland has already been gobbled up by development.”

The first thing they did upon arrival was to email all of the organic farmers on P.E.I. and visit whoever responded.

Their first encounter was with Raymond Loo, who is well known in local organic farming circles and beyond.

“That was the best scenario right there. He took us around, gave us a big tour and said, ‘You have to come here and grow organic vegetables. That’s what you have to do. We need you here.’ He was so positive,” Varga says.

“One of the things he said to us is that there is more demand for organic vegetables than there is supply right now. (P.E.I. needs) more organic farmers . . . ,” Smith adds.

“His whole mindset, that we agree with and that we believe in, too, is the more organic farmers there are, the more choice there is, the stronger the market becomes (and) the more people come to the farmers’ market.”

They initially set out to lease land on which to start their organic farm but were soon astounded to discover that it was possible to purchase a small farm of their own.

They happened upon a property in Darlington that had a small acreage with a house, barn, numerous outbuildings and two greenhouses.

It was a perfect fit, especially since the 1.5-acre field had been fallow and so would only need one year of transition to become officially certified as organic.

“You have to dig a little bit deeper than you maybe would otherwise,” Smith says.

“Everything we use on the farm, whether it’s potting soil or compost or bleach that we use to sterilize our pots (must be organic), so you need to go to the company and request a complete list of ingredients. It just takes a little more time, a little more digging, but it’s not that much harder.”

Smith and Varga were impressed with the types of grants and diversity of programs that were available through the government to assist small farmers in various ways, such as buying specialized equipment for growing food organically.

Another aspect that they tapped into to get word of Heart Beet Organics out there was the Internet through their webpage and blog, The Beet Goes On, that they sporadically update when their busy time schedule allows, which is far less than they anticipated at the outset.

“I had high hopes for the blog. We could tell everybody what we were doing all the time and people can get a feel for what it’s like. But at the beginning of the day the (work) list is so long and at the end of the day my creativity is so low, I find it’s very difficult,” laughs Varga.

Variety is not only the spice of life on this organic farm, it’s a savvy stopgap measure to stave off disaster.

“It’s a saving grace on a farm this small. If you only have the one thing in the ground and something happens like a bug that overpowers it or the weather is the total opposite of what that plant needs and you only have a tiny margin (of profit) per acre, you’re not making your margin. On our farm, if one thing doesn’t make it, the others will,” Varga says.

“And part of growing so many crops is because we just wanted to see what would grow well here and see what people at the market are interested in buying,” Smith adds.

“The big mistake our first year here, we did not grow yellow beans! We grew green beans and we grew purple beans, but we did not grow yellow beans and we learned our lesson. Everybody wanted yellow beans so now we grow them (too).”

Now they sometimes toss a few purple beans into the pack so people can try something different.

“And it’s nice to see people’s reaction to new things,” Varga says.

One new reaction-eliciting offering at Heart Beet Organics is pink oyster mushrooms.

“They look amazing — they’re super, super pink, but you don’t see them in stores because they don’t last long,” Varga says.

“They’re a tropical (mushroom), so we only produce them in the summer in the greenhouse,” Smith says of this product which, like their new products, ginger and turmeric, loves the super heat of the greenhouse in the summer months when all else would wither.

The couple recently ventured into heritage Chantecler laying hens, which was a learning experience right from the get-go.

“We got two dozen little chicks and we were going to keep the hens but the roosters just kept coming.

“I am sure that some people can tell by the feathers on the first day but we were not those type of people,” Varga says.

The rooster to hen ratio in the end was 2:1.

In terms of tomatoes, they grew 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes last year and are aiming for the same this year, only with double the amount of production, some of which will go to some of P.E.I.’s finer restaurants.

“It’s one of those things that first catches people’s eye when they come to the farmer’s market and they see the display with all the different colours of tomatoes,” Smith says.

“The reason we like growing so many different ones is that there is just so much variety and unique flavours. The different colours actually have different flavour components to them. Like yellow or orange tends to be a sweeter not very acidic tomato, and a green zebra or black tomato tends to be more tart or more acidic. It’s nice to be able to offer someone variety.”

Even though their farming practices may differ from those of their conventional farming neighbours, Smith and Varga have been overwhelmed by how supportive everyone has been.

“And I think there are a lot of older farmers in the area that when they see new farmers come along they get really excited about it.

“They want to see us succeed and they want to help us out. They’ve been just been really wonderful,” Smith says.

“And there are these older (farmers who) go up and down the road in their trucks,” Varga adds, “and so they love that there’s a new place to stop and see what’s going on.” 

Geographic location: P.E.I., Massachusetts, Darlington Charlottetown Germany Canada Ontario Nova Scotia Quebec

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Recent comments

  • Bette Donahoe
    April 14, 2013 - 12:22

    What a great article. One of these days, I am sure the article will be in a cooking magazine. I hope one day I will visit when I can use all these herbs and various tomatoes and veggies in our cooking. Kudos to you both.

  • Shannon Courtney
    April 14, 2013 - 09:28

    Wonderful to read this story, so glad that you decided to make PEI your home and contribute to the growing organic food community here. We need more people like you!! Thanks -you for being great farmers.

  • well done
    April 13, 2013 - 15:49

    I am so pleased to read about your new venture - PEI definitely needs more organic farmers of all sizes growing and rearing all sorts of produce. It's a good fit with the reputation we have for fine dining and wholesome food!! I wish you every success!!

  • intobed
    April 13, 2013 - 13:38

    This is the type of farming that PEI needs to get more involved in.

  • David Griffin
    April 13, 2013 - 10:53

    This is a success story for both of you. I wish you all the best. Islanders need special dedicated people like you guys. Keep the farming alive and well, more so organic produce.