The Experimental Farm

“On Thursday afternoon the weather- which has been none too good so far- tempted me to pay a long-meditated visit to the Experimental Farm. The lawns were a vivid green, and although the trees were just breaking bud, the scene was delightful as the sun shone through the ranks of white birch and other trees. 

‘The long perennial border, with its edging of Siberian Scilla, blue as the sky above, was awakening, and Iris Paeonias, and other plants were pushing up to greet the spring; the white blooms of the Arabis, one of the hardiest and earliest of the class were just showing. The crocuses were gone. A clump of leaves, like giant daffodils, attracted my attention; I turned up the label to find it was an Eremurus. Now I have never seen an Eremurus in bloom, so I must visit the Farm when this giant lily blooms later on. 

‘Behind this border was a bed where all “the lesser beauties” of the garden grew: Jacob’s Ladder, Columbines of sorts, Sweet Rocket or Dame’s Violet, and Oriental Poppies among them. 

‘Here I was joined by Mr. George Brown, who took me over the Orchard. Perhaps the most interesting trees were a number of young ‘Melba’ apples, which Mr. Brown assures me are destined to be the apples of the future. They were grown from single buds, grafted into hardy stocks and are now about four feet high. Growing among the trees were lines of rhubrab (sic), some of which- the new Rhuby, originated at Ottawa- had stalks of a glowing red and very distinct; the other was a local variety, with a good deal of green in it, but of a mild flavor and requiring little sugar. All had been raised from seed and kept true by a rigorous selection. 

‘The poultry pens next claimed attention and Mr F. Gregory who was working among them promised me the results of the tests when concluded, for the benefit of my readers. I gathered that some of the hens had an annual production of over 280 eggs to their credit. The big incubator was in operation in a special house and its electric fan to keep the warm air in circulation, kept up a monotonous subdued roaring…

‘Leaving the hatchery I made my way to the glasshouse (Anglice, ‘greenhouse’) which has been erected since my last visit. Here, I believe Mr. Tinney is in charge, though I had not the pleasure of making his acquaintance. Instead of the usual display of tender plants, plots of ripening grain met my gaze; for this is where the plant breeding experiments are carried on. In one corner I noticed a fine pot of lilies, and correctly guessed them to be Lillium regale: it is a new lily and (I have read) was discovered in China about ten years ago. I was afterwards shown a photo of this plant with 28 blooms on one stalk.

The Apiary and Laboratory of Plant Pathology were next visited, and will form the subject of tomorrow’s notes.”

Newsy Notes by Agricola. “The Experimental Farm.” The Charlottetown Guardian, May 18 1929.

Wood as Fuel

“There has recently appeared the results of investigations into the wood-fuel supply by the Dominion Fuel Board, and while it contains little that is new to us who are extensive wood users, still, the repetition of some of the outstanding facts may remind us of matters that we have left undone in conserving this source of heat. 

A woodlot in Queens County, PEI.

“Consumption of wood as a household is about one cord per head of population in Canada and therefore constitutes an important item in the fuel bill. The use of wood is primarily confined to the rural districts and to towns near the source of supply for it is inferior to coal in fuel value and, on account of its bulk, costs more to transport.

“From information gathered, it may be shown that there has been for the past twenty years; a continuous shrinkage in the farmers’ woodlots which constitute the chief source of supply. To such an extent has depletion proceeded that split rail fences and even roadside and hedgerow trees are now a considerable item in the fuel wood supply. 

“This depletion is not attributable to any lessening of acreage as a general thing, but to the lack of foresight and care, principally due to the grazing of livestock which has served to prevent germination of seeds, killed off seedlings and injured standing timber. This is a point in which we display much apathy.

“The tendency today, largely due to these conditions, is to the use of coal and oil and this when accentuated will add considerably to Canada’s fuel problems.

A woodlot in Queens County, PE.

“Experience in other places has shown that the rehabilitation of run down wood-lots will require fifteen to twenty years of the most expert care and only a meagre yield of one quarter (or at most one half) of the normal producing capacity can be realized in the interval. The wood-lot owner has, in the main, still to be educated in the proper method of wood-lot management, and as this can only be made effective after many years training there seems to be no prospect of marked improvement in fuel production from wood-lots in the near future: rather, I imagine, the reverse.”

Newsy Notes by Agricola. February 28, 1929.


Oyster Shell-Mud

“Many of the early settlers in our province gathered oyster shells at low tide from some of the many extensive deposits that occur in the bays and rivers throughout ‘The Island.’ They burned these shells to secure quick lime, required in making the mortar, which they used in building their chimneys and fire places ,and for plastering their houses. They also observed that where these shells were burned the vegetation in the years following, was much more vigorous, this was particularly true of clover, cereals, and some of the vegetables.

Mussel shells

“The top layers of many of these deposits, particularly those that were exposed at low tide, were composed largely of blue mussel shells in various stages of decomposition. Ingenious farmers invented and constructed mud-diggers of different types, but quite efficient for the lifting of these deposits. Some of the first ones were mounted on scows, but it soon became a general practice to lift mud through the ice in winter. Most of the surface deposits of mussel mud were quickly exhausted.

“Underneath these there were usually deep deposits of oyster shells, sometimes almost pure oyster shell mud was located that extended to a depth of more than twenty feet. These muds were all referred to as “mussel-mud” the name carried from the surface deposits that were first used on land. It was a common sight, early in this century, to see dozens of mud diggers on many of our rivers and bays in winter. We have seen maps prepared for the Provincial Government, showing oyster beds in Malpeque Bay that extended over a hundred acres each. On some of these beds there are deposits of oyster shells over ten, fifteen and twenty feet. 


“The first application of shell mud to land not previously mudded was very beneficial. It invariably produced luxuriant crops of clover, (we remember fields that did not need to be raked, as large coils were not more than twenty feet apart), followed by increased crops of roots and grain. These muds were essentially lime, most of them contained eighty-five per cent and over of carbonate of lime with traces of nitrogen and phosphoric acid. They were good soil amendments. The farms near some of these deposits received very heavy dressings in the early days, but second applications proved of little value. The growing of certified seed potatoes was partly responsible for the decline in the use of oyster shell mud, which tended to increase potato scab. 

Loading sleighs with Mussel Mud. David Weale. Source

“The mud was either piled on the shore or near a highway where it could be hauled away later or piled in small heaps on the fields and exposed to frost, which broke down many of the shells before being spread on the land. We recall buying good shell mud at the diggers at four to six cents per scoopful of from 400 to 500 pounds. 

“The railway ran a spur line to a pier on St. Peters Bay near large shell deposits. The price charged for a 12 1/2 ton car (enough for an acre) of mud was $3.50 for many years. In 1920 this had been raised to $14.00 F.O.B. point of shipping. The value of lime for Island soils being established as a valuable soil amendment, ground limestone from the mainland has been imported in increasing quantities.” 

Painting by George Ackerman circa 1880.
Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island. Source.


The Kestrel

“The Kestrel or Sparrow Hawk is about the size of a Robin, and is the only small hawk which has a shade of chestnut-red in its tail feathers. Reed truly says that it has ‘bright colors and odd markings.’ It is so handsome and at the same time so evidently harmless, that it has escaped much of the destruction aimed at its larger companions. Another point in its favor is its ability to adapt itself to its environment: it is equally at home in the pasture lands of the east and the forests of other regions.

“The Kestrel feeds principally on mice, large insects, frogs, and snakes. At times it attacks birds and may kill jays, quail, and other birds as large as itself. It may visit towns where sparrows abound, whence the name ‘Sparrow-hawk.’ Dr. Taverner, however, thinks that a more appropriate name would be “Grasshopper Hawk.” (And he notes that when taken from the nest young, this little falcon is easily tamed.) Scientists have examined 291 stomachs and found that birds were killed and eaten only in the winter when insects are not available. “It is obvious that the Sparrow Hawk is beneficial and should be protected.” 

“Kestrel or Sparrow Hawk. AOU 360. Summer Resident- List, 1916. One observed at Alberton, 1937.

“Adult Male: Head slaty blue, crown rufous; face pattern black and white. Black rufous with or without black spots or bars. Wings blue gray; tail rufous-red with a wide sub-terminal black band and a narrow white tip. Underparts creamy white to buff, a few black spots or none. 

“Female: Head and face like male; black wings and tail rufous, barred black; underparts more or less dark brown and streakedImmature birds resemble adults. Length of adult 10.5 inches.”


“Controversy over Fertilizers”

The following is an excerpt from the Newsy Notes column by Agricola. The article, titled “Controversy over Fertilizers” was published in The Charlottetown Guardian newspaper on January 19th, 1946.

“Agriculture in Britain, given new life under the pressure of war, is engrossing the attention of the public as never before. One evidence of this is the interest taken in the wide-spread controversy between those farmers who favor the use of “artificial” fertilizers, and those who pin their faith on the old standby “muck”, which being translated is manure or dung.

“On the one hand, then, are those connected with “big business”- we have them in Canada too- who maintain that natural manures are not economic, that all farms should be run as factories, and that fences and horses should be scrapped in favor of prairies and tractors. On the other hand there are those who believe with Lord Lymington that “mineral and dung in solution, fused by human sweat,  remain the food of civilized man.” They are also convinced that the use of artificial fertilizers is slowly poisoning the whole population, and have named sulphate of ammonia “Devil’s Dust.”

As far as we know, the 1940s were prior to the real industrialization of farming on Prince Edward Island and through much of Canada. Evidently, though, the debate on the development of large-scale operations was a heated one from the beginning.
Ammonium sulphate is still a fairly widely used fertilizer across Canada today, despite its clearly long history of controversy and early nickname of “Devil’s Dust.” According to The Government of Canada (2020), 11 000 metric tonnes of Ammonium sulphate were in inventory in the September count in Atlantic Canada alone; this is a number that in actuality has increased since 2015.

“The last statement is a serious charge, and can only be proved or disproved by a series of experiments which must necessarily be lengthy. Something of the sort has been done in New Zealand, and the results were published in 1939.The locale of the experiment was the Mount Albert Grammar School hostel, which housed sixty boys and the teaching staff. The dietary of the hostel was far above the customary standard for boarding schools, yet the boys suffered- as was the case in other N.Z. institutions- from colds, catarrh, septic tonsils, influenza, dental caries, and other ailments. (It must be stated here that all New Zealand’s food supplies are grown by means of chemical fertilizers).

Picture of humus

“In 1936 Dr. G. B. Chapman of the Physical and Mental Welfare Society of N.Z. advised that the hostel’s fruit and vegetables be grown on properly prepared humus instead of chemically treated soil: and an acre of black volcanic soil was put under cultivation. No chemicals were used. The report of the matron of the hostel in 1939, said “The first thing to be noted, during the twelve months following the change-over to garden produce grown from our humus-treated soil, was the declining catarrhal condition among the boys. There was also a very marked decline in colds and influenza. Colds are now rare and any cases of influenza very mild. In the 1938 measles epidemic, which was universal in New Zealand, the new boys suffered the more acute form of attack: the boys who had been at the hostel for a year or more sustained milder attacks with a much more rapid convalescence.”

This influential study by Dr. Chapman was presented to the House Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products in the United States Congress in 1951.

“There is much more to the same effect but we pass on to the Royal Commercial Travellers’ Schools near London, England. In 1939, Dr. E. Brodie Carpenter of that institution, took over the dental care of two or three hundred children whose condition he found “to be (dentally) deplorable.” In Sept. 1941,  he again classified his charges and found the percentages of caries was about the same. In 1943 and 1944 there was some improvement, but the Dr. got a great surprise in Sept. 1945: his A class- the best- had increased to 97 per cent (from 50 p.c.); the B class once 32 p.c. was now only 3 per cent; and the C’s- worst of all, and once 18 p.c.- were entirely eliminated.

“Dr. Carpenter set out to find the reason for the improvement, and discovered that a 5 ½ acre field had been taken over in 1939, and a gardener appointed who believed in manure but not in fertilizer. He brought the field up gradually till the school was self-supporting so far as roots and green vegetables were concerned: and he claimed that the humus-grown stuff was responsible for the great improvement cited.

It is important to recognize that Dr. E. Brodie Carpenter was a dental scientist, but he was an active soil conservationist in the Soil Association’s group in Middlesex, England.

“At the College of St. Columba in Northern Ireland they even produce their own wheat and bread! Chemical fertilizers are rigidly excluded, and to this is attributed the very high standard of dental health enjoyed by the students.

“Now these conclusions are certainly plausible and seem to point the way to a change in farming, but it will, I venture to predict, take a long time to convince the farmer that he must farm without chemicals. Overwhelming proof that they are dangerous must be produced, and such proof will be hard to furnish: two or three examples are not enough.

“Chemical fertilizers certainly give the crops, and within certain limits the more fertilizer, the bigger the crop- which is all that the farmer looks for. But there are many chemicals in the soil in very small amounts, which are necessary to the good health of the crop and its consumer as well. The bigger the crop the more the soil is depleted of these necessary elements. We have already got to the stage where we must supply the turnips with boron and the potatoes with magnesia, while there may be other deficiencies not so apparent, or not yet discovered.

“A year or two ago P.E.I. was in the spot-light on account of the longevity of its people. Was the cause of the long life in the naturally raised food which the old-timers ate? Will the next generation live as long?”

The life expectancy in Canada has been steadily increasing over the course of the last century, according to the Government of Canada. So, while perhaps Agricola was a little too enthusiastic on suggesting artificial fertilizers as the cause of the early demise of Canadians, there is still value to noting that there were advocates for organic and sustainable farming in the 1940s, even though the concepts were not yet fully understood.

Read more of this Newsy Notes here.

To read more on the ninth Earl of Portsmouth and the political origins of his Soil Association, see here.

To read the full hearings on the Investigation of Chemicals in Food Products, see here.

To read more on Dr. Carpenter, and British agricultural history, see here.

To see the Statistics Canada data on fertilizer, see here.

To see the Statistics Canada data on life expectancy in Canada, see here.