The Grass Roots of a PEI Potato Farm

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By Joshua MacFadyen and Margot Maddison-MacFadyen

Lori Robinson is a 6th generation farmer in Albany, Prince Edward Island, in the heart of the province’s potato belt. But recent years have been tumultuous for potato growers, and Lori has been searching for sustainable crop alternatives to continue her family’s farm. Potato production has become increasingly specialized and high-tech, its costs per acre are high and rising due to energy costs, and its international markets are fickle. After one of the largest harvests in 2021, the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency discovered potato wart on two PEI fields and closed the Canadian-U.S. border to spuds, the Island’s most important agricultural product.1 Wart is a non-toxic but extremely persistent soil-borne disease caused by the Synchytrium endobioticum fungus. The border closure meant that growers had to destroy almost 300 million pounds of the crop, pulping them through snow blowers onto their frozen fields.2 Between the cost-price squeeze and environmental threats such as soil erosion and water pollution in areas of intensive potato production, the tuber has become a controversial part of agriculture on the Island over the last 50 years.3

The Robinson family was once among the largest potato producers in this part of PEI, but Lori has not grown potatoes since 2018. One of the few women to run a large farm operation in PEI, she has implemented a range of soil conservation measures, market diversity strategies, and better management practices in her efforts to make the family business sustainable. She represents both a new generation of farmers and traces of her ancestors.4 At the UPEI GeoREACH Lab we have developed a Farm Energy Profile project that we hope will help farmers better understand the ways their agroecosystems were managed in the past. Although this piece focuses on the Robinson farm in 1861, the project will eventually conduct similar analyses at more recent time points and at any scale. Today Lori’s farm includes 35 parcels totalling about 2,500 acres. In 1861, it comprised just two parcels (a father and son operation) that together totaled 98 acres, or just shy of four percent of its current size. The 1861 profile demonstrates that the Robinson farm was originally rooted in fodder production and its land use was managed intentionally, presumably always with future generations in mind. 

To view the rest of the Farm Energy Profiles, see the project page here.

Figure 1: Lori Robinson, Twitter @spuddoc Source: Lori Robinson. Used with permission.
Figure 2: Goldrush potatoes growing on an Eric Robinson Inc. parcel in North Tryon, PEI. Source: Lori Robinson. Used with permission.

Lori Robinson’s ancestors were British Empire Loyalists, Joseph Robinson Sr. and Mary Robinson (nee Smith) who fled New York in 1777 and settled on PEI in 1778.5 In 1810 Joseph Robinson Jr. (1786-1874) married Phoebe Foy (1794-1863) who lived near Tryon, PEI, and the couple made this their home and base of farming business. In 1861, the Robinson farm was 62 acres. Joseph and Phoebe had a large family of six boys and three girls.6 According to the 1863 “Lake Map” and the 1880 “Meacham Atlas” at least four of their sons acquired land and farmed in the community. By 1861, their eldest son John (1814-1864) had a 49 acre farm that was eight km to the west of his father’s home farm, representing a distinct satellite agroecosystem within the Robinson family.7

Figure 3.  A map of the Joseph Jr. (see Thomas Robinson) and Benjamin Robinson properties (mapped in green). Joseph Jr.’s second youngest son Thomas inherited the home farm, and his youngest son James W. Robinson acquired the two additional parcels of land (mapped in brown) before the 1880 Meacham Atlas maps were drawn. Note how the Robinsons made use of the small watershed that centered on the brook emptying into Cumberland Cove. From the height of the land above, Benjamin and James W. were able to survey the land below that ran to the home farm in the Cumberland Cove Valley. The base map is a mosaic of 1935 aerial photographs, supplied courtesy of the PEI Forests, Fish and Wildlife, Resource Inventory and Modelling Division. Map by J. MacFadyen and the UPEI GeoREACH Lab.

The Robinsons’ early farm energy profile shows that potatoes were important in the early years, but farm operations centred mainly on ruminants, cattle and sheep. They reported 15 cattle and 20 sheep in 1861. This was more ruminants than the average farm in their community, which boasted a carding mill and a fulling mill to support the province’s wool industry. We suggest that the Robinson farm’s relatively large sheep herd was raised primarily for the wool, and it found a ready market in mills like Charles E. Stanfield’s first Maritime factory, the Tryon Woolen Mill (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Sketch of the Tryon Woollen Mill, Meacham Atlas (1880), p. 129,  Illustrated historical atlas of the province of Prince Edward Island: From surveys made under the direction of C. R. Allen, C.E. 40 chains to one inch. Toronto: J. H. Meacham & Co., 1880. Robertson Library, University of Prince Edward Island,

Joseph and Phoebe’s three sons, Thomas (1821-1903), Benjamin (1816-1881), and James W. (1833-1898) probably worked their lands together so that combined they functioned as one agroecosystem. Benjamin acquired 36 acres two km to the north near the height of land above the home farm, and James acquired two parcels of land, one adjacent to Benjamin’s and another on Traverse Road to the east (Figures 5 & 6). Lori Robinson is descended from Joseph and Phoebe’s youngest son, James W. In 1861, however, Joseph’s and Benjamin’s farms supported two households and together comprised the total Robinson agroecosystem of 98 acres. James had yet to acquire his own parcels. Joseph Robinson was 75 years old and Benjamin was 45.8 Including Thomas and James W., Joseph’s family had eight members, and Benjamin’s had five. There was ample adult labour to manage and work 98 acres.

Figure 5.  A clip of the “Lake Map,” showing the Augustine Cove and Cumberland Cove areas. D. J. Lake, C. E. Topographical Map of Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from actual surveys and the late Coast Survey of Capt. H.W. Bayfield. 100 rods to the inch. 1863. Robertson Library, Prince Edward Island,
Figure 6. A clip of the 1880 “Meacham Atlas,” showing the Augustine Cove and Cumberland Cove areas.  From “Plan of Lot Twenty Eight: Prince Co., P.E.I.” Illustrated historical atlas of the province of Prince Edward Island: From surveys made under the direction of C. R. Allen, C.E. 40 chains to one inch. Toronto: J. H. Meacham & Co., 1880. Robertson Library, University of Prince Edward Island,

By examining the location and the combined uses of Joseph and Benjamin’s land in 1861, we see a deliberate site selection strategy. The brook that emptied into Cumberland Cove ran through Joseph Jr.’s land. However, the brook’s source flowed from the south facing slopes on Benjamin’s land to the north. The Robinsons likely used this small watershed (Richard Point Watershed) to pasture and water their livestock on what was for all intents and purposes common woodland. From marshland grass in Cumberland Cove to the brooks and forests in the upland commons, the ruminant-intensive Robinson farms made use of the natural resources of the watershed to supplement their cultivated fodder and grain feeds.

In 1861, the Robinsons’ combined 98 acres was in an advanced pioneer stage of development. Their land was 70 percent improved (or cleared), 29 percent in woodland and wildland, and one percent in buildings and lanes. Of the improved land, 45.5 acres was in crop land (including about 5.5 acres in potatoes), and 23.5 was in fodder (6.7 acres in hay and 16.8 acres pasture). The Robinsons kept three horses, four swine, 15 cattle (including dairy, beef, and likely some oxen), and 20 sheep. In the farm profile we convert these animals to livestock “units” so we may compare the animal energy bioconversion on farms such as Robinsons’ with others in the region. These 42 animals consumed the equivalent of 15 large (500 Kg) cattle, and of those “units” just over 11 were grazing ruminants. With only 16.8 acres of pasture that equals about two-thirds of a large 500-Kg cow grazing on each acre. The Robinson farm’s ruminants were thus putting significant pressure on its fodder supplies, and their grazing intensity was relatively high for the Maritimes.

Figure 7: Photo of Robinson neighbour Fred Gamble with a team of horses, ca. 1912, Acc2667/137, Public Archives and Records Office (PARO), Charlottetown, PEI. Used with permission. We assume this photograph was taken in Tryon, PEI, near Robinson land. At least one branch of the Gamble family migrated to colonial Canada from Ireland in the latter part of the 18th century, first settling in Miramichi, New Brunswick, and by the last decade of the 18th century relocating to PEI’s Lot 28.

Like many farms in Atlantic Canada, wetland, forest, and other wildland resources were used strategically, both at the shore and further upland. Of the Robinson’s wildland, about 5 acres was marshland from which they could have produced at least 12.5 tons of marsh (or broadleaf) hay to supplement the eight tons of upland (or English) hay they reported in the 1861 Census of Canada. Beyond these fodder outputs, the Robinsons produced crops totalling 66 bushels (bu) wheat, 30 bu barley, 80 bu buckwheat, 512 bu oats, and 900 bu potatoes. By all considerations, the Robinson farm was doing very well in 1861 and had created a solid foundation for the generations of Robinson farmers yet to come. 

Figure 8.  “Full Force” haying group, [between 1905 and ca. 1920], Acc2667/154, PARO, Charlottetown, PEI. Millie Gamble Fonds. Used with permission. Helena Ives sits on the wheel of the hay rake machine holding Adelaide Ives on her lap. The photograph is assumed to have been taken in Tyron, PEI, close to Robinson land.

At the GeoREACH Lab, we are interested in the farming strategies of individual farms within their geographic context. We use tools from social ecological metabolism research and environmental history to create Farm Energy Profiles, of which the Robinson farm is our 14th. The manuscripts of the 1861 and 1871 censuses provide the details necessary to create profiles of almost any farm in Canada, and we hope they offer farmers like Lori Robinson a way to compare historical land use strategies with the options available to them in the present day.

The full Farm Energy Profiles go beyond what we have shared here because we are not only interested in a farm’s social and family history, but also in the energy that settlers extracted from field, forest, and water that made up their agroecosystem and the larger Census Subdivision (such as PEI’s Lot 28) in which they were situated. In particular, the profiles reveal the role that livestock played as bioconverters, and they help us to understand the circular economy and the energetic strategies pursued by rural Canadians during the settlement period. As well, the profiles allow us to compare farm strategies in different provinces, and different Census Subdivisions in each province. To read more about the Robinson farm and its community in the 1860s, read our first PEI profile at this link.

[1] Ziad Ghaith, The Prince Edward Island Potato Sector: An Economic Impact Analysis. Strategic Policy and Evaluation Division, Department of Agriculture and Land, Government of Prince Edward Island (2020).
[2] Greg Mercer, “The heart of PEI’s economy, potato farmers now face financial chaos and an identity crisis,” The Globe and Mail May 2, 2022,
[3] Jean-Paul Arsenault, “Agriculture and the Environment on Prince Edward Island, 1969-2014: An Uneasy Relationship,” in Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen, and Irene Novaczek eds., Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press and Island Studies Press, 2016).
[4] Lori Robinson returned from Ontario Agricultural College to her family farm in 1994. She used her training  to help her father Alan, but only weeks into their first season together, Alan died tragically in a car accident.
[5] Augustine Cove, Prince Edward Island, 1800-1973 (Augustine Cove, PE: Women’s Institute [History Committee], 1973), 77.
[6]  Miriam Robinson family trees and branches,, Their sons were John (b. 1814/d. 1864); Joseph (b. 1814/d. 1866); Benjamin (b. 1816/d. 1881); Charles (b. 1819/d. 1896); Thomas (b. 1821/d. 1903); and James (b. 1833/ d. 1898). Their daughters were Clementina (b. 1811/d. 1892), Maria (b. 1823/d. 1940), and Jane (b. 1826/d. 1863). Maria never married, and Charles moved to Shediac, New Brunswick. The remaining seven married men and women of the Augustine Cove community with surnames such as Howatt, Gamble, Lord, Campbell, Malone, and Callbeck. 
[7] “John Robinson,” 1861 Census of Canada, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Ottawa, Schedule 1, p. 11, line 15 and Schedule 2, p. 12, line 15,
[8]  “Joseph Robinson,” 1861 Census of Canada, LAC, Ottawa. Schedule 1, p. 2, line 9. and schedule 2,, p. 1, line 9.  “Benjamin Robinson,” 1861 Census of Canada, LAC, Ottawa. Schedule 1, page 2, line 11. and schedule 2,, p. 1, line 11.

Feature image: : Photo of Robinson neighbour Fred Gamble with a team of horses, ca. 1912, Acc2667/137, Public Archives and Records Office (PARO), Charlottetown, PEI. Used with permission.
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I am an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Prince Edward Island where I teach in the Applied Communication, Leadership & Culture Program in the Faculty of Arts. My research focuses on the history of biomass energy and agriculture. From 2012-2014 I was the NiCHE project coordinator, and I served on the NiCHE editorial board until 2018.

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