© GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY
Fresh produce is just one thing on the organic menu at Margie Loo and Dave Blum’s Elderflower Organic Farm on the Selkirk Road in Valley.
Value-added products boost margins at Margie Loo and Dave Blum’s Elderflower Organic Farm in Valley
Tiny beetle saunters lazily along the shoulder of Margie Loo, who has just come into her cozy kitchen from a full morning of greenhouse work.
When she’s informed of her scuttling passenger, with nary a shiver down her spine, she scoops the wayward insect in hand for a quick return to the great outdoors.
Such is the life on Elderflower Organic Farm in on the Selkirk Road in Valley, where for Loo and her partner, Dave Blum, sustainability and good land stewardship are paramount.
“I grew up thinking that I belonged to the land. There was a really strong identity of being from there and being from a farm,” says Loo, who grew up on a multigenerational farmed homestead in Springfield that dates back to the 1820s.
“That was really important growing up, but then I decided that farming was really way too much work and not secure enough. So I decided I was going to go off to university and get a job in an office and have my weekends off.”
It turns out that fate had a bonne fête surprise in mind for her in that career regard.
“Farming kind of snuck up on me again. In my late 20s, I just had to buy some land and start growing seed. That seemed like the right thing to do . . . ,” smile Loo, who before that had worked in Guatemala in the early 1990s with Project Accompaniment, for which North American volunteers acted as international observers and witnesses to human rights violations and threats during the civil war and accompanied refugees returning to that country during the signing of the peace accords.
After returning to P.E.I. in 1996, Loo began growing medical herbs for wholesale, but that crop direction changed in 2000 when she set up shop on the newly purchased 69-acre property in Valley, which came with an old farmhouse and a working greenhouse that prompted her to explore the vegetable side of farming.
“I started really liking the idea of selling locally and knowing my customers rather than wholesale. So then I started growing lettuce. Everybody eats lettuce, so you can sell a lot of lettuce compared to how much St. John’s wort you can sell. The marketplace is just way bigger,” she says.
Another deciding factor at that time was that her brother, Bill Loo, was giving up his booth at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market. So she and her sister, Joyce Kelly, and their brother, the late Raymond Loo, banded together for this organic sales endeavour.
“At that time I was working part-time as well as farming. Then I decided I wanted to make enough living on the farm and not have to make it all in the summer. Because if you have to make it all in the summer, it ruins summer. It’s too much pressure and too much risk,” Loo says.
“So I started with the sprouts (in 2005) and made sprouts into my part-time job because every week I’d plant new alfalfa, sunflower, pea shoots and wheat. It’s a one-week crop so if something goes wrong you start a new crop.”
Elderflower Organic’s sprouts are now sold at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market and to various Charlottetown restaurants and some veggie box home delivery providers during the winter months.
Because sprout production required a Canada Food Inspection Agency sanctioned facility, Loo added veggie burger production to the value-added mix, using spouts and other organic produce from the farm.
“I was making them for myself because I didn’t like the choices in the stores, so I thought that other people would probably feel the same way,” Loo remembers.
Now she not only sells her all-organic veggie burgers — summer garden, which contains zucchini and basil; and veggie harvest with carrots, beats and onions — at her farmers’ market booth, they are also on the menu at several Charlottetown restaurants.
“In the end, you want it to be simple but something that people don’t make a home or don’t want to make a home. I’ve been thinking of how to use some of the fruit in value-added things as well — drying the fruit and making raw treats, like raw macaroons with fruit in them and energy bars,” she says.
Two years ago, Blum, who also hails from a well-known P.E.I. farming family, came onto the Elderflower Organic Farm scene, bringing with him ideas and techniques that they could also incorporate.
"One thing that I'd been thinking about all along but didn't quite have the courage to do myself was pigs," Loo says.
"If you raise pigs and you have them on the land, pastured, that really, really improves the soil. And integrating that with growing vegetables makes it more a full system — just having as much diversity as possible."
This pasturing of the pigs process is an effortless way of working the land by utilizing their ingrained soil rooting habits.
"They do the work on the soil for you. They pick the weeds out . . . , they also fertilize it and they root whole field up. They're little pig tractors. So there are multiple benefits," Blum says.
For this Valley couple, small-scale organic farming is an ever-evolving practice.
"There have been expansions and contractions, and now we're trying to compress our knowledge and figure out what things work together on a farm. So it's a whole, not doing as many different crops as before but trying to make everything interlinked, Loo says.
"Even from doing the sprouts to selling and making value-added products from the spouts and the vegetables and using (the excess or waste produce) for the pigs, (we want to) have it all be a full circle. That's really important."
AT A GLANCE
What: Elderflower Organic Farm in Valley, near Belfast.
Who Margie Loo and Dave Blum sell organic vegetables, a variety of sprouts, wheatgrass and catgrass, as well as veggie burgers and other products made with farm ingredients.
For information: Check out their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ElderflowerOrganicFarm.
How to: Go to YouTube to view the veggie burger production process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEs3YaZlXCE.