Blue Lagoon Organics knows quality comes from the ground up.
By Joelle Kidd
On a rainy Saturday in early summer, the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market is bustling as usual, with shoppers delightedly perusing produce piles for the perfect specimen at farmers’ stalls, umbrellas held high.
Stefan Regnier, one of the farmers behind the family-run Blue Lagoon Organics, stands at his stall, happily placing vibrant stalks of Swiss chard, crunchy cucumbers and frilly heads of lettuce directly into his customers’ hands.
Many of them greet him with familiar ease. “Need any eggs?” he asks. His customer exclaims that it’s her lucky day. Blue Lagoon’s eggs are her favourite, she says. What makes them so good? “I don’t even know! They’ve got such flavourful, orange yolks!”
Organic produce lends itself to that old truism: you are what you eat. A healthy chicken on a diet including grass and grubs produces a beautiful, flavourful egg, while a caged bird pecking on soy and corn does not.
This is the key to Blue Lagoon Organics success. It comes from the ground up.
Lori Ann Regnier, a schoolteacher, and her husband Rene, who was in the soil and gravel business, decided to make a career change around 1998, when they took over the family farm outside St. Fancois Xavier from Lori Ann’s mother.
Lori Ann took a prairie horticulture course to get a crash course on growing. Stefan remembers his mother’s surprise to discover it was largely instruction on when to apply different synthetic fertilizers. “She never realized how much intensive chemicals go into producing food. So she was like, ‘There must be a better way of doing this.'”
This was the beginning of the Regniers adopting organic farming practices. Today, their land is fertilized naturally by running chickens over it and rotating in crops like alfalfa – a legume which naturally fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere and roots deep to bring up nutrients from the soil, effectively cleansing it.
These are not new ideas. The farming industry, once made up of many small farms each feeding a few consumers, industrialized over decades to fewer operations that feed the masses, breaking the farm down to its composite parts for mass production: cows over here, corn over there.
Mixed-use farming, where animals fertilize the crop fields, removes the need for synthetic fertilizers, which run off into the water system, causing algae problems in rivers and lakes.
This is why, for Stefan, organic farming is all about the soil. “That’s my mantra,” he says.
In his pursuit of regenerative agriculture, Stefan presents as a blend of pioneer and mad scientist, mixing centuries-old traditional techniques with high-tech upgrades. This summer, he experimented with autonomous chicken tractors that roam with the birds. The machine is solar-powered, GPS-programmed, and moves on its own (the Regniers were already using chicken tractors that had to be physically moved). It even has cameras on board that link to a smartphone, like a chicken nanny-cam.
For consumers, intricacies of agricultural practice are often hidden behind a label – “organic”, “all-natural”, “free run” or “free range.” As organics’ popularity has skyrocketed, these certifications and pseudo-certifications (beware poultry boasting “enhanced housing,” which Stefan says merely means a perch has been added to the chickens’ small cages) have become hard to parse.
Wary shoppers should look not just for “grass-fed” beef but “grass-finished,” which indicates the cows have not been moved to a feedlot, and eggs from “free-range” or “pastured” chickens (“free run” chickens are not caged, but are housed inside a barn). Ultimately, the best way to learn where food comes from is to talk to the person who produced it.
Stefan says he used to feel guilty about not being able to satisfy customers looking for celery in the spring or a red tomato in the dead of winter. But he’s come to realize the necessity of a shift in consumer behavior. Eating seasonally may be the most important factor in how people should eat, he says.
Caring for the stability of our environment is also key. The unpredictability caused by climate change – late frosts, early winters, floods and storms – can all have extremely adverse effects on farming, and farmers are already grappling with managing the changes.
“But the future could be bright if we get the people who are going to make the hard choices to say […] we do need to control what we’re putting in the environment, so there is a future moving forward for everybody.”
Farming organically means getting in tune with a system that is “simple but highly complicated,” says Stefan. “But when you get the balance and everything starts working really well, it’s beautiful.”
It does seem to require devotion. Just think of the response to the last question you asked a producer at a farmers’ market – the passion in their voice, the details of growing times and temperatures, and the variance of this year’s crop versus last. Try getting that at a supermarket.