Maritime island cultures survived many hardships

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Readily available, potatoes and vegetables are attractively displayed on grocery store shelves. Potato sacks are stacked on pallets, easy to place in grocery carts for purchase. The abundance of delicious crops enjoyed today at home and abroad hides the long and painful history of agricultural disasters in Prince Edward Island. Over the centuries, settlers have faced rodents, distant volcanic disturbances, lack of agricultural knowledge and bad luck.

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Searching for a new route to East Asia or perhaps gold, explorer Jacques Cartier and his crews sailed west from Saint-Malo, France in the spring of 1534 The European explorer came to lands lush with forests. His description of the discovery is brilliant as he maps and records notes of natives in canoes. “The most beautiful land that can be seen, and full of beautiful trees and meadows,” he wrote. Of course, other people already knew that. Residents for more than 12,000 years, the Mi’kmaq called the island Abegweit, meaning “rocked by the waves.”

The Mi’kmaq and other First Nations did not farm; they were fishermen, hunters and gatherers. Among other things, their richly varied diet included moose, bear, deer, and rabbits, as well as lobsters, clams, and oysters. Indigenous people gathered nuts and berries, ate wild vegetables and wild potatoes, and sipped tea from wild cherry, spruce and birch branches.

Claiming the land for France, Cartier called it Ile Saint-Jean. The explorer sailed on and the island was left in peace…until the British and French skirmished over territory. Located near the waterways leading to the settlements of Upper and Lower Canada, the island was a valuable catch. French settlers arrived to build communities and establish farms. “During the war it was transferred between the two European nations until Britain became the final victor in 1758,” said Marlene Campbell in “1850s Prince Edward Island,” Summerside Arts, Heritage and Culture ( SAHC).

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“The soil, where there are no trees, is also very rich and is covered with peas, white and red currants, strawberries, raspberries and wild oats like rye,” Cartier writes. A French colony was established in August 1720 at Port LaJoie on the northeast coast of the island. Clearing the huge old trees and brush took a lot of energy and time. There would be no crops planted in the brutal first year, only shelters erected before the cold winter set in.

Unable to remove some of the tree stumps from the fields, the settlers planted around the obstacles. “The grain was sown by spreading the seeds by hand and the seed heads and straw were harvested with a sickle,” said Heather Keefe and Marlene Campbell in “The History of Agriculture (Farming) on ​​Prince Edward Island”, SAHC. Dyke systems have been constructed to provide water management. The collected straw and seeds were tied together in stakes – the bundles stood upright – and stored in the barn, to be separated during the winter season.

Growing the staples of cabbage, turnips, peas, and wheat, farmers also harvested rye and barley. Surviving from the crops, there was enough to feed the cattle. The fields were fenced off with wooden rails to prevent animals from destroying the valuable food source. But one type of hungry little animal couldn’t be kept away.

“Between the years 1724 and 1738 three plagues of field mice caused great devastation to the people,” Campbell and Keefe described. “The year 1738 was the worst because all the French colonies were hit and the people faced starvation.” After gnawing through all of the farmers’ crops, the hordes of mice devoured “all vegetation in their path and rushed headlong into streams encountering a watery grave.” Another alarming mouse attack occurred in 1749. Grasshoppers devoured crops the following year, and in 1751 wheat plants were scorched by the sun.

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As if the acts of nature did not punish the settlers enough, Île Saint-Jean was seized by the British in 1758. Most of the 5,000 French and Acadian settlers were deported and their homes and livelihoods burned. About 300 people escaped and remained on the island.

Holding a lottery, the British awarded plots of land to nobles who owed favors. The new landowners then had to rent the farms to tenants on lease. The plan did not work well, from landowners simply wanting to hold the land, to settlers who found it difficult to establish working farms. British settlers were starting from scratch, clearing the land and establishing farms and homesteads. United Empire Loyalists, Irish, Scottish and British settlers came with a range of skills, but not all with agricultural backgrounds.

In 1773, the Island’s first legislature held its government session in Charlottetown. Six years later, Île Saint-Jean was renamed Prince Edward Island, after a son of King George III. By the turn of the century, more than half of the island’s population was made up of Scottish emigrants.

Although farmers climbed steep curves to learn farming techniques and harvest success, disaster was never far away. The year 1816 ‘will be dubbed ‘the year without a summer’ ‘as dust from a huge volcanic eruption in the Pacific lowers temperatures and crop yields around the world,’ said ‘Historic Milestones’ by the government of Prince Edward Island.

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A new crop was introduced to plant in 1790. Potatoes grew in the sandy soil and became a staple food for the residents. Enough tubers grew that the crop could be sold for export to Bermuda beginning in 1827, Campbell and Keefe said.

Around the same time, training sessions and societies were organized to increase the knowledge and skills of farmers. The Island’s Lieutenant Governor. Colonel John Ready supported his settlers by bringing in fresh livestock – pigs, sheep, horses and cattle.

Farmers faced a new crisis in 1845. “Potato blight, a disease that causes plant tissue to suddenly wilt and die, first struck the island,” Campbell noted. The disease caused food shortages and damaged exports. The next horror in the field was a raid of Colorado potato beetles. Disease and beetles were managed by removing insects by hand, with innovative chemicals of the time, and by the icy grip of winter.

Other agricultural advances came with the use of nearby springs. Farmers used “animal manure, black mud from swamps, seaweed or kelp and lobster bodies,” Campbell and Keefe said. “Herring was often planted between sets of potatoes as fertilizer” and “mussel mud was dug in winter through the ice from the bottom of rivers as a source of lime for the earth”.

Independent and self-governing, the residents of Prince Edward Island first refused to join Confederation in 1867. To encourage the island to become part of Canada, the Dominion Government made several concessions—lines of communication with the mainland, a steam service, and a large loan for land compensation. . The islanders were still reluctant to give up their independence, but were forced to reconsider when legislation on a railway in 1871 led to financial disaster.

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“Two years later, railway liabilities had so jeopardized the island’s position in the money market and brought its economy so close to collapse that the island’s government reluctantly admitted that Confederation was the only possible solution,” explained FWP Bolger in the CCHA report, “Prince Edward Island and Confederation 1873-1873. Realizing the weight of the debt beyond the ability to repay, Prince Edward Island -Édouard agreed to join the Confederation on July 1, 1873.

Over the next century and beyond, PEI potatoes became 25% of the total potato crop in Canada. (According to Agriculture Canada, PEI’s percentage is now about 20%).

Farming techniques and processes can be sophisticated, but problems always arise. At the end of 2021, potato exports from Prince Edward Island were temporarily halted to the United States. Crops in two agricultural fields developed potato wart, “a soil-borne fungal parasite”. Although it causes no harm to humans or food safety, the ugly growth “has been known to depress crop yields and can render potatoes unsaleable by ruining their appearance,” Dave Bedard said in AGCanada, November 22, 2021.

The industry would also solve this problem.

Thank goodness farmers persist in producing the good food we so desperately need.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston. She could eat potatoes morning, noon and night.

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