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Inaugural farm award honours 86-year-old potato worker

April 12, 2010  By Kathy Birt

It could be said that 86-year-old Nazaire Arsenault of Central Bedeque, Prince Edward Island, is a man of few words.

It could be said that 86-year-old Nazaire Arsenault of Central Bedeque, Prince Edward Island, is a man of few words.

Nazaire Arsenault (left) stands with P.E.I. Agriculture Minister George Webster during the awards ceremony November 2009. Arsenault has worked for Greenfield Farms for 68 years.

Contributed photo

As the first recipient of the P.E.I. Farm Worker’s Award, presented in November 2009, he is nonplussed by the attention the award has garnered him.

“Nice, I never expected it,” he says when asked how he feels about winning the award.
Numerous P.E.I. media outlets have carried the story of Nazaire’s longevity as a farm worker. Recently, when contacted for yet another interview, his employer, Barry Green of Greenfield Farms, said he and Nazaire were “all interviewed out.”

As of last November, Nazaire had put in 68 years of work on Greenfield Farms. Barry, himself 62 years of age, remembers when the now elderly man used to take him around by the hand to toddle around the family farm.

Nazaire was 18 when he came to the farm, then owned by Barry’s father, John Green. He grew up on a small mixed farm and said that, upon reaching a certain age, it was expected that young people would “get out on their own.” He was hired on at Greenfield Farms and left his western P.E.I. home to move in with the Green family.

In 1941, Greenfield Farms was a mixed farming operation. Over the years, the farm has gradually moved away from cattle and other livestock, becoming instead a large potato operation. With the poor markets for table stock and uncertain weather conditions affecting potato crops in P.E.I., the farm reduced its crop down to 630 acres of potatoes in 2008. They have reduced that down further to 430 acres. Most of that crop goes to the processing market with some going to a wash line.

Barry’s 39-year-old son, Robert, pretty much runs the farm now. And, while farm work is not as physically hard these days thanks to the mechanization of farm equipment, Barry says that farming in the 21st century is mentally harder then it was when he began working on the farm.
“Back then, it was fun farming,” he said. “Now it is big business and if you make one mistake, you could be out of business.”

Barry and Nazaire agree that today’s farm equipment makes the job easier compared to using horses with a one-row potato digger and planter. “I’ve seen a lot of changes,” said Nazaire. “Back then, cows were milked by hand, water was pumped by hand and potatoes were picked in a basket.”

Greenfield Farms purchased its first tractor in 1946 at a cost of $650 and its first potato harvester in 1966. Other equipment, like a two-row planter and digger, closely followed.

Nazaire describes his first time on a tractor quite simply. “I didn’t upset it.”

Starting out his career as a farm worker, Nazaire was paid one dollar a day and had a wage increase after one year of employment. He said over the years, his paycheque has grown “quite a bit bigger” and noted, “You could buy so much more back then for one dollar.”

P.E.I. Agriculture Minister George Webster, who created the Inaugural Farm Worker’s Award and was a longtime farmer himself, believes Nazaire has made a major contribution to agriculture.

“I couldn’t believe when I heard of his dedication and service to the Greens and that farm,” said Webster. “What a major contribution to the industry.”

He added there are lots of other individuals on farms across the province who have contributed to P.E.I.’s agricultural industry.

“Those people behind-the-scenes are doing due diligence and need to be recognized,” said Webster.
The agriculture minister said he was inspired to create this award because he felt that it is usually people who make the major achievements who need to be recognized.

Barry Green (Left), current owner of Greenfield Farms, examines some potatoes in storage with longtime employee, Nazaire Arsenault. Nazaire, 86, recently received P.E.I’s inaugural Farm Worker’s Award. 

“There are these silent workers (like Nazaire) who don’t get the recognition they so well deserve,” said Webster. “I’m encouraging the (P.E.I.) Potato Board to do the award on an annual basis.”

Nazaire has seen the evolution of farming on P.E.I., a fact Webster was quick to point out. “He saw the tilling of the land with horse and plough; he saw the first car; the first tractor; and he has evolved with it to make it (farming) his lifetime career. He was always there when the day started.”

Obviously, after 68 years of working on the same farm, Nazaire is definitely dedicated. That dedication came through one fall when he was experiencing chest pains and waited until after the potato harvest before seeing a doctor. He had experienced a heart attack and spent one week in hospital and six weeks at home. Another time, he cut the end off a finger and, after a brief visit to the hospital emergency to have the finger bandaged up, he returned to work.

It is with pride that Barry points out Nazaire never drew Employment Insurance over the years and did not apply for his Old Age Pension until he was 70. “He said he didn’t need it,” Barry explained.
When asked if he was good at saving money, Nazaire said, “Some of it.”

Barry said that when he was 20, Nazaire could easily keep up with him and added, “When I was 40, he could still work with me.”

The octogenarian bought his first car in the 1950s and eventually married and became the father of seven children. He moved “just down the road a mile” from the Green farm and lives in that same house today.

He stopped driving farm equipment at age 76 but is still eager to be on the farm. “We see him every day there is work to be done,” said Barry.

With arthritis affecting his 86-year -old bones, Nazaire said if he doesn’t keep moving, his joints will “seize up.” On his days at home, he keeps his wood stove burning, spends some time doing word searches in the local newspaper and watches the news shows on TV. “I cook my own meals but wouldn’t cook for anyone else,” said Nazaire with a smile. He adds that most days, potatoes are a part of his meals.

Throughout his life as a farm worker, Nazaire made only a few trips off the island, usually to visit his daughter in Ontario. “But there was someone else driving…my son-in-law,” he said. He also had a family member drive him across the Confederation Bridge, something he thought he would never see built in his lifetime. “They talked about it for a long time.”

It goes without saying that Nazaire has been a reliable farm worker and Barry said getting people like him to work on the farm today is not easy. “We can usually find workers, but they are not always good workers.”

Nazaire said he was raised at a time when a strong work ethic was instilled in young people. Barry couldn’t agree more. At the suggestion to Nazaire that he might retire, the older gentleman just smiled.

“When the good Lord calls him,” said Barry.

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