A thriving Queens County organic farm

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People have to line up at farm markets early to get produce from Queens County farmers David Blanchard and Cindy Rubinfine.

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David and Cindy are full-time organic farmers who sell a wide variety of vegetables at farm markets on the South Shore. Their produce is so good that people are waiting for them when their market stall opens.

They run Pleasant Hill Farm, located in North Queens, near Pleasant River. It is a certified organic farm.

For Queens County residents who do not get to shop at farm markets in Lunenburg and Hubbards, Cindy and David run a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) program where people sign up to receive weekly bags of organic food, the variety in them depending on what is being harvested at the moment.

Our most recent bag contained baby spinach, Chinese celery-cabbage, golden rave tomatoes, kale, red and green sweet peppers and three kinds of onions. Each week, David and Cindy send out suggestions for use of the vegetables they are including that week.

Cindy and David moved to Pleasant River six years ago after deciding to sell their organic farm in Maine. They chose their farm here because it met several criteria they had in mind for a new farm, and they make no secret of the fact that they left the US because they were unhappy with the political situation there. Among the criteria was the fact that it had to have a good woodlot, as they would be heating greenhouses with wood from their farm.

Once here, they immediately went to work setting up their farm. David registered for a program in Honours Biology at Dalhousie University and they began erecting the first of many greenhouses on their property. Cindy joked that David wanted to take the degree because their children were such accomplished students, and he wanted to study as well.

Their 24-year-old son, Javin, stayed in the US when David and Cindy moved to Nova Scotia. Daughter Ariel works with her parents on the farm at the moment, and youngest daughter Hannah is a marine biology major at Dalhousie. Both are musical, Ariel playing the cello and Hannah the flute, and both were in youth orchestras.

David and Cindy began as dairy farmers in upstate New York in 1980. In the 1970s, David had gone to agricultural college and Cindy studied music (she played the pipe organ for churches and community groups, while David used to play the double bass), but both were anxious to become farmers. They farmed in New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Maine before deciding to leave the US for Canada.

They were in Pennsylvania for fifteen years milking 65 cows and running a dairy. They raised their three children there and in the latter few years switched their farm operations from dairy production to organic vegetables. Unlike Canada, the US has no quota system for milk, which meant that the price was volatile and it was difficult to pay farming costs with dairy production. They are very pro-quota.

The switch to organic vegetable production began when Cindy took vegetables to the local health food store in Pennsylvania and sold four hundred dollars worth. David saw that and said, "Hmm, could you do any better?" Their switch to vegetables began in earnest.

In all of their farm moves they were upgrading their farms and looking for the place they most wanted to live, and they have found it here in Queens County.

They are hard workers and make their living completely from their Nova Scotia farm. They developed their CSA program because they felt badly that while they lived in Queens County, they were not selling at large farm markets here. People are still able to sign up for the CSA program, which will run in renewable six week sessions through the winter as well.

Because of the quality of their produce, and the fact that it is certified organic and is tended and picked by hand, it costs more than that brought in by the grocery store chains. It is also fresher and grown closer to home, and has amazing flavour.

They use their greenhouses to stay ahead of the seasons. They have, for example, the first tomatoes at the markets, and they sell out almost instantly. They grow unusual crops like ginger, too, a plant which normally grows in much warmer climates. Buyers are able to get bundles of ginger at the moment, which can be frozen for use during the winter.

They provide mixes of salad greens when they are not available elsewhere at markets, and concentrate on other vegetables when everyone has salad greens to sell.

David and Cindy are not very happy with large grocery chains and the way they treat both farmers and the food they sell. The big stores force farmers to sell produce at very low prices, and the food, since it is distributed from central points, is never as fresh as it should be. In the US, they sold their organic produce wholesale to stores and to restaurants, but they have discovered that their best markets are farmers' markets.

In fact, it was an agreement with the Hubbards farm market that brought them to the South Shore in the first place. Now they sell at the markets there and in Lunenburg, and they are especially happy with the Lunenburg market, as people there have gotten into the habit of doing much of their weekly shopping at the market, which is open year-round.

Being organic farmers is not simple, particularly when the farms are certified organic. In fact, Pleasant Hill Farm will be going through its annual organic farm certification inspection this week. The inspector is an accredited organic inspector who spends several hours at the farm. The inspections are careful; this year they will even be inspecting chicken houses, to make sure there are roosts inside and that the doors are big enough for more than one chicken at a time. Organic farmers work to the Canadian Organic Standards regulations, enacted by Agriculture Canada.

David and Cindy plan to expand their Pleasant Hill Farm, ordering another greenhouse in November, and hoping to hire a third farm worker. They also want to do more plant research and research into sustainable agriculture.

Organizations: CSA, Dalhousie University, Dalhousie US for Canada Canadian Organic Standards

Geographic location: Queens, Lunenburg, US South Shore Hubbards Maine Pleasant Hill Pennsylvania Nova Scotia New York Pleasant River Vermont Canada

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