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Outstanding in their field

Winning Outstanding Young Farmer Award great experience for P.E.I. couple


February 11, 2010
By Kathy Birt

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A young P.E.I. couple who originally met in Grade One French immersion have gone on to become (Canada’s) Outstanding Young Farmer’s for 2009.

A young P.E.I. couple who originally met in Grade One French immersion have gone on to become (Canada’s) Outstanding Young Farmer’s for 2009.

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With the Outstanding Young Farmer Award comes the recognition that Greg and Tania MacKenzie (centre) plus their children Austin (far right), Haley (far left) and Gracie (centre front) are outstanding in the field of agriculture. (Contributed photos by Alanna Jankov)

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Greg and Tania MacKenzie of Stratford, Prince Edward Island, are eager to tell the story of what a great experience competing for the award has been for them.

It’s a story of growing up together, becoming a married couple and parents. Then buying into a farm business and working hard for more then six years to make it the success it is today. This couple and their three children, Austin, 12, Haley, 11 and Gracie 4, have carved themselves a niche on a farm that has a long history on P.E.I.

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Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2009, Greg and Tania MacKenzie of Stratford, P.E.I., grow about 85 acres of cabbage with 90 per cent of their crop supplying Key Brand Foods. (Contributed photo by Alanna Jankov)
 
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Greg and Tania MacKenzie originally met in grade one French immersion. (Contributed photo by Alanna Jankov) 
 
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Employee Mike Weeks trims cabbage at Tania and Greg MacKenzie’s farm. Greg said the farm is only as great as its employees and the couple works hard to accommodate their staff.(Photo by Kathy Birt)
 
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Greg and Tania MacKenzie with youngest daughter, Grace. The family’s operation expanded in 2004 and a new cooler was built this past summer. (Photo by Kathy Birt)


 

Balderston’s Produce has become synonymous with cole crops, strawberries and other vegetables in the Stratford area, going back 100 years. For the MacKenzie’s to take on such a giant in the cole crop industry was a mammoth challenge.

Greg MacKenzie began working for Balderston’s while still in high school. He liked the work and the people, so he stayed on. When he saw an opportunity to buy into the cole crop side of the business, “There was no question that we’d buy it.”

He said his job was all about learning the business of produce and moving up in position. “There was always something different every day, a new challenge that made work eventful.”

He grew up on a mixed farm and was used to long days. Hence, he adapted well to the long days at Balderston’s Produce. Living in the St. Catherine’s area of the island, it was at least a one-hour drive to work. “It was a long trek and in the busy season, the hours were long. I would get home and get cleaned up, have a bite to eat and a quick snooze and go back,” he said, adding, “I was used to that growing up.”

There was an opportunity to purchase land with the farm, but the couple knew they were taking on a fairly significant amount of debt. “We thought it would be better to hold off,” he said. At that time, the majority of the farm business was on a rental land basis. “And we kept it that way.”

The couple makes it clear they did not purchase the entire Balderston’s Produce business. “We purchased the warehouses and (cole crop) markets and the house. They are still Balderston’s Produce. We renamed it Balderston’s-MacKenzie Produce and after five years, we were comfortable letting go of the Balderston’s name when we felt everything was established,” Tania said.

They’ve proven to themselves and to their customers that they could keep the farm going and are now comfortable with those “established” markets that include 85 acres of cabbage, about 50 to 60 acres of green and yellow beans, pumpkins, gourds, broccoli, turnips and cucumbers.

“We added the pumpkins and gourds to get the kids involved,” said Tania, noting that Austin and Haley did not grow up with the farm, but Gracie, aged 4, is very keen. “Austin and Haley now help out with transplanting and I help with that too,” she said, adding that Greg gets them all involved.

The couple rent 500 acres that they keep in rotation. “Other farmers do that, (the rotation) not us,” said Tania.

Winter wheat and hay gets planted and harvested, but Greg noted that it is getting harder to get someone to harvest the hay. “So some hay fields will get plowed down to add nutrients to the soil,” he said.

They looked at various ways and means of obtaining loans when they were buying the farm and through Farm Credit Canada and the Future Farmers Program, they were able to get some interest relief. “When we expanded in 2004, we joined the two existing warehouses, upgraded the cooler system and built a grading line. We were able to get an interest free loan from ACOA for that. We just recently built a 48 x 84 new cooler this past summer with no grants or funding,” said Tania.

Greg said most large cole crop growers now have cold storage and feels it is essential to keeping markets. “If you keep anything past March, you need cold storage.”

Currently, through some door knocking, they supply all Chinese food restaurants with cabbage in the greater Charlottetown, P.E.I., area.

“We also supply Key Brand Foods,” said Tania. Actually, 90 per cent of their cabbage goes to Key Brand Foods.

“That has grown over the years,” explained Greg.

When he first came to the farm, only 10 to 15 bags of cabbage went out daily. Then it grew to 50 bags and he noted, “That seemed to be a big order.”

Now it has grown even more. “We have 16 bins going daily,” said Greg.

“It’s 15,000 to 17,000 kilograms (of cabbage) daily going to Key Brand Foods,” added Tania.

But it wasn’t always easy. “We lost big markets too,” said Tania.

“Right after we did our expansion and had our grading line set up, we had only run it a half a dozen times and Loblaws said they were phasing out buying direct and going through the P.E.I. Vegetable Growers Co-op,” explained Greg.

With all the challenges of the farm and a young family, the couple, now both 35 years of age, found more challenges when they were nominated for the Outstanding Young Farmers award.

“We had just finished harvesting the week before we had to go (to Ottawa),” said Tania.

They usually take a week’s vacation to Mexico or Dominican after harvest, hiring a family member to stay with the kids. Knowing they would be involved with the Outstanding Young Farmer’s program for five days, they booked a one-week family vacation for January. “We had that in the back of our minds while we were going through all the activities,” said Greg.

Having won the Atlantic version of Outstanding Young Farmers in the spring of 2009, the couple now had to prepare a 15-minute presentation with up to 30 slides.

“We initially had a 15-page form to fill out that covered all the changes we had made – finances, environmental changes, upgrades and any change to the house as well,” said Tania.

Family and community involvement were also required on the form.

The couple had to go through three different interviews with three judges over the five days. “We were judged on how we interacted with the other nominees as well as alumni,” said Greg, adding that their day started at 7 a.m., and usually ended around 9 or 10 p.m. At that point the hospitality suite opened and there was an opportunity to talk to judges and other nominees individually.

“We usually got to bed about 1 a.m.,” said Tania with a smile.

They both agreed that by day two, they had decided it wasn’t a matter of wining or losing. “We knew we would come again for the experience and we just wanted to enjoy ourselves,” said Greg.

This title does not come with any cash or awards of any kind. In fact, the couple says to be recognized at that level (is the award). They agree the experience of meeting and getting to know people from across the country has been great and they are keeping in touch with them via e-mail.

If the MacKenzie’s have any advice to other young couples considering taking on a project like Balderston’s Produce, it would be to follow the operation’s established growing formula.

“We grew off the pattern the first year so we would make no mistakes,” said Greg.

They knew the changes they made were essential to not only saving money, but saving the crop in some cases. “We were traveling quite a distant to rented storage and the more time your product is out doors, the more risk there is,” said Greg.

Now the extended warehouse and cold storage guarantees their produce stays inside until it goes on the truck to be transported. A roadside stand to showcase produce is also a part of the operation. This gets moved according to where they are growing.

“We also have a stand in our warehouse so we can sell year round,” said Greg.

Part and parcel of this now award-winning farm is a great staff. “We value our staff and have worked out things to accommodate them,” said Greg. “They wanted to work longer days and have Saturday and Sunday off and we’ve done that. There are some days that go from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. but when it gets to be after 6 p.m., we bring in supper for them.

“We guarantee 40 hours, no matter what. If it’s raining, we find jobs for them.”

Although the award is shared with a couple from Manitoba, the MacKenzie’s are happy with all the publicity they have received as a result of the Outstanding Young Farmer’s (National) Award and agree it’s great to have their name getting out there.

“It’s nice to know that we now have our own identity established,” said Greg.