Island couple tackling challenges of potato farming
By Kathy Birt
By Kathy Birt
At the age of 19, it’s expected a
young man like Jonathan MacLennan would have been playing with
snowmobiles and cars. But, instead of a muscle car, he bought land.
|Jonathan MacLennan (left), along with his wife Katie (right) and their young son. The couple own and operate MacLennan Properties, a 1,400-acre farm near West Cape, P.E.I., with 600 acres producing potatoes for the processing market plus some acreage dedicated to table stock and seed potato production.|
At the age of 19, it’s expected a young man like Jonathan MacLennan would have been playing with snowmobiles and cars. But, instead of a muscle car, he bought land.
“I think I did the right thing,” he says today, now 32.
He and his wife Katie, 28, own MacLennan Properties – 1,400 acres of land in West Cape, P.E.I., with 600 acres producing potatoes for the processing market. About 95 per cent of the crop is contracted. The farm also has a small table stock contract and grows its own seed potatoes.
The couple took over operation of the fourth-generation farm three years ago after Jonathan’s father retired. They lost the heritage family home, plus all their belongings, in a fire last year. The couple is currently settling into a new “hurricane-proof” home overlooking the Northumberland Strait.
“You have to be optimistic to be a farmer today,” says Katie as she considers the challenges facing farmers in the 21st century.
A secure contract with the Irving-owned Cavendish Farms helps with planning for the future, admits Jonathan. “You know when you are getting paid. You can almost count your chickens before they hatch.”
But even with that kind of security, Jonathan says he probably has more fears for potato farming than he had a dozen years ago. Meeting the criteria for processing contracts gets harder each year, he says. “Buyers are putting food safety issues on Cavendish Farms and they, in turn, are putting them on the grower. Food safety has really come into it.”
There is a lot of paperwork and regulations that must be met. At the top of the list is traceability. The MacLennans record how often the crop is sprayed, what chemicals are used, what time of day it is, what the weather is like and what field they are working in.
“All this is submitted to Cavendish Farms, so if something goes wrong, they can trace it back to at least three or four growers who were hauling potatoes to the plant on a certain day,” explains Jonathan.
There is also much to watch for in the warehouse when grading the crop. Cavendish Farms has little tolerance for foreign material, such as glass, in graded potatoes, says Jonathan. “Three strikes and you’re out.”
The couple also has to ensure the crop meets U.S. product standards since “over half of the product produced at Cavendish Farms goes into the U.S.,” explains Jonathan.
“It’s not a bad criteria, but they throw all this at us and it just makes our lives more difficult,” says Katie, although she adds, “They have standards that have to be met.”
The MacLennans say it demonstrates that Cavendish is always striving for better. “They have a goal every year, and as soon as they meet it, they set another one,” says Jonathan.
In exchange for meeting the extra demands of the contract, the farm receives some financial incentives. But any profit is quickly returned to the operation through buying land or machinery in order to remain competitive. Jonathan believes the 1990s were the “heyday” of processing contracts. “Growers had improved their growing abilities greatly and they were getting well paid,” he points out. “My father could fulfill a million pound contract with 28 acres. Today, I have to plant 40 acres to fulfill the same contract.”
He admits that may be due to the wild weather situations his operation has experienced over the past several years, including last fall’s consistently wet weather that forced him to leave 20 acres in the field. “We’ve never had to leave that much (acreage) in the ground.”
In order to make use of the operation’s entire yield, the MacLennans sell all their culls for cattle feed or truck them to the Agri-West dehydration plant in Souris. Getting from West Point to Souris at the east end of the Island takes up a whole day, says Katie. “And they want a continuous supply,” adds Jonathan.
During poor production years, Cavendish Farms has bought culls for producing hash browns, further proof to Jonathan that the frozen food plant is interested in helping out its suppliers. Despite receiving no increases to their contract price for the past five years, the couple says they are not about to give up the security.
To keep the farm viable and producing a quality product, the couple do more than paperwork and grading. Jonathan’s father started installing tile drains in the fields as far back as the 1980s and the couple has carried on his conservation efforts. About 75 acres of hilly, poorly producing land located adjacent to the home farm has been put into strip cropping. “There was a lot of erosion,” recalls Jonathan. The couple followed up that shift in field management by planting hedgerows and became involved with P.E.I.’s Department of Forestry to maintain the plantings. Grassed waterways and headlands, as well as diversion terracing has also been added to the lay of the land at MacLennan Properties, Ltd.
To help boost production during the hot, dry summers, an irrigation system covers 125 acres of the farm.
The potatoes are grown in a three-year rotation with hay, soybeans and grain. The MacLennans trade the hay and straw produced for manure to reapply to the land.
Jonathan and Katie feel good about what they have done for the betterment of their farm and crops and the environment. They have taken all the steps they can to control as many variables as possible.
“I can see the benefits to our crops,” says Jonathan. “If we hadn’t strip cropped, there would probably be rocks on them mounds of hills. Now I know the land will be there for the next generation,” he says.