John Quimby and his wife, Susan Frazier, didn’t know when they visited P.E.I. in search of a cottage 15 years ago that it would lead to a life of full time farming in Murray Harbour North.
©GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY
All California couple John Quimby and Susan Frazier were seeking when they came to Prince Edward Island in 1999 was a cottage where they could lazily bask in the summer sun and leisurely stroll sandy beaches.
When the dust settled after driving down a red dirt lane on a property in Murray Harbour North, these Santa Barbara urbanites had bought themselves a farm.
Fifteen years later these new-to-the-landers are certified organic farmers and owners of Dunn Creek Organic Farm.
“We just started gardening and it just sort of expanded,” Frazier says of their fledgling learning-to-grow years.
“And we were gardening badly. We were just doing awful things to plants,” Quimby adds, laughing.
“I remember the first garden we had here. It was 10 times bigger than what we had seeds for and the seeds we did plant, half of them got eaten up by slugs and the other half were just pathetic.”
Things have certainly come a long way since 1998 when Frazier and her adult daughter, Sunny, visited the Island on an Anne of Green Gables pilgrimage of sorts.
“Susan arrived home in the middle of the night, I’d just gone to bed, she walked in the door, flipped on the light, dropped her bags and said, ‘We’re moving to Canada!’ That was the first news I heard from the trip; that we were pulling up stakes and moving on,” Quimby grins.
The next year the couple came to P.E.I. in search of that elusive cottage.
“We were thinking to come up seasonally and spend time with the children while they were young and enjoy summers together,” Quimby says of their family, which also includes sons Spencer and Toby, who are now 21 and 14 respectively.
Of course, then they bought the farm, despite the fact that for Frazier, who is from Milwaukee, Wis., and Quimby, who hails from Santa Barbara, Calif., farming was about as remote a thought as igloo construction.
“The only people who farmed in my family I met once in Kansas when I was three years old, so that wouldn’t count (as experience),” quips Quimby, who at the time was in radio broadcasting and doing commercial recording media work and Frazier was a partner in a certified public accounting firm.
And so they began the annual summer commute to their P.E.I. farm in 2000.
In 2004 they started the process to have their garden certified as organic by the Prince Edward Island Certified Organic Producers Co-operative.
“I remember that the conscious decision to certify organic was that we were going to have to learn anyway. We didn’t want to learn in a conventional framework and then have to transition to organic because that seemed like twice the work. Since we were ignorant we thought we might as well start where we wanted to end up,” says Quimby.
It was definitely a steep learning curve.
One fine summer day, Frazier headed off to a John Deere farm equipment dealer for what ended up being a successful day of tractor shopping.
“There’s a picture of Susan with every other man in the neighbourhood standing in front of this tractor in the field because having a brand new tractor arrive in the neighbourhood was a big deal; and a lady bought it, that was something else,” Quimby remembers.
“We realized pretty quickly that when the traffic on the road would slow down when we were out on the front road that some of the older fellows here who had farmed before were watching and wanted to see how things were going. Undoubtedly we were a source of grand amusement on certain days.”
The name, Dunn Creek Farm, has its origins in the family who once lived on the property.
“The other half of that story was that when we moved here we couldn’t describe geography here and Islanders have unique way of describing where things are and so we would be asked where do you live? So I’d be awkwardly be trying to remember road numbers; we’d get this long pause and then someone would say, ‘Oh, you’re in Willie Dunn’s place...,” Quimby says.
“So we gave it that name as a tip of the hat to the neighbourhood.”
In 2000 Frazier began taking an annual three-month sabbatical from her firm.
“I calculated the other day I must have given up about tens of thousands of dollars in that time period but who cares?
“I had that time with my kids ...,” she says.
For Quimby, things really began to change around 2007/08 when the stock market crashed and the United States economy took a steep nosedive.
“That was the year a lot of things suddenly changed direction for me, the business I
had been doing, working in
advertising and marketing and media production, the whole economy just slammed on the brakes and nobody was marketing,” he says.
However, things on the hobby farm home front were looking up in 2008 as the couple marked their first modest income milestone of $1,400, mostly from farm gate sales.
“Hard to believe we were encouraged by that,” Quimby jokes.
“We still had our day jobs then. Now we don’t have any day jobs, so it’s a little more serious,” Frazier laughs.
That bouncing back-and-forth between their urban Santa Barbara and their rural P.E.I. lives became far more difficult than they ever could have thought.
For Quimby, there was a feeling of melancholy at summer’s end, especially when he stayed behind to wrap things up after his wife and boys returned to California.
“I’d just make sure everything was finished and closed up for the winter and it was so sad. I’d watch the horses go down the lane to where they were boarding for the winter and they were looking at me like ‘How could you?’ And so it got harder and harder to leave every year ....”
The couple knew they were going to live full time on P.E.I. at some point.
Frazier was scheduled for an early retirement in 2011, but in January of 2010 as she faced yet another grueling tax season, she decided it was her last and negotiated an even earlier retirement.
“So between January and June we packed it all up, sold the house and got the hell out of Dodge,” she laughs.
Their initial on-farm menagerie of animals has increased from two horses to five sheep and a hearty flock of heritage breed chickens, which they pasture-raise.
More recently, they decided to try Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a program in which members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest.
They are also a fixture at the Cardigan Farmers’ Market in Cardigan and are members of the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) through which they have this year taken on an apprentice under the Grow a Farmer program.
“We’ve kind of shifted our mission a little bit. We’re self-taught but now we’re teaching others,” says Quimby, who has a part-time on-farm business called The Production Room, where he does voice work for commercial agencies.
Last year they sold everything they grew so this year they’re the upping production ante.
“This year we said, ‘We’ve got all this land, we’ve got an apprentice so we’re just going to plant and grow as much as we possibility can,’ because in the past we’d be kind of silly, thinking ‘Oh we don’t want to waste some seed,’” Frazier says.
“It’s going from the gardener mentality to the farmer mentality,” adds Quimby, who every day counts his blessings that he discovered that he was actually a country boy at heart.
“For me, I think it’s the number of times I will just spontaneously think and sometimes even turn a corner and say out loud, ‘I love this place.’
“If you can feel that way about where you’re living and working, that’s being lucky.”
IF YOU GO
If you go
Cardigan Farmers’ Market in the Old Train Station in Cardigan begins its new season on Saturday, June 14.
The market features fresh cooked, local food available all day.
Fresh local vegetables are also available.
Artisan bread is made onsite.
There are fresh locally grown and processed meats and snack foods, fresh-made fruit smoothies and milk shakes, as well as arts and crafts.
Hours are Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.