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P.E.I. farm tests potato chips for foreign markets

January 12, 2010  By By Kathy Birt

The collaboration of five Prince Edward Island farms with potato chip producer Frito Lay has resulted in loads of potato varieties being shipped to potato chip plants around the globe.

The collaboration of five Prince Edward Island farms with potato chip producer Frito Lay has resulted in loads of potato varieties being shipped to potato chip plants around the globe.

Terry Curley, owner of Monaghan Farms in Norboro, P.E.I., refers to some of the areas the potatoes he and his partner produce are exported as Frito Lay potato chips. 
Terry Curley (left) and Carol Bernard stand by the YSI
machine, which is used to determine sugar levels in the
potatoes at certain stages of growth. The machine has membranes to detect the dextrose, sucrose and glucose levels. 
Carol Bernard performs all the product testing required in the fry labs and also sugar tests the potatoes produced. (Photos by Kathy Birt) 



Terry Curley, owner of Monaghan Farms in Norboro, P.E.I., is no stranger to growing potatoes for the potato chip market. In the 1980s, he grew chip stock for Old Barrel while also producing potatoes for the local French fry market. “I always grew for the processing market and it was 1988 that I diversified and began growing (potatoes) for Frito Lay,” said Curley.

His contract with Frito Lay, which has plants world wide, worked well. Other potato growers would sell to Curley and, when Frito Lay paid him, he passed payment on to the other growers.

It was that kind of grower connection that helped to cement the current partnership Curley has with Rod McNeil of West Isle Farms in Tyne Valley. When Frito Lay approached Curley in 2001 with an idea to grow and export company varieties to other countries, he looked at h is own experience in growing potatoes. He also considered Rod McNeil’s 30 years of exporting experience and felt they would make a good team. MacNeil would be able to focus on exporting without the added work of growing.

“Nobody’s good at everything, so our combined experience has worked,” Curley said.

But it wasn’t possible without ensuring all the finer details of growing and shipping six varieties of Frito Lay’s products were worked out. “The conventional wisdom at the time was that chip stock couldn’t be shipped (for quality reason) any more then five or six days or they would deteriorate,” said Curley.

The loads of spuds are shipped in large containers. To assure freshness, a sensor goes with the shipment to measure temperature.

Curley pointed out that he and McNeil felt this venture was doable with the right varieties, enough attention to detail and even a little bit of luck. “We sent three loads back in 2002. They went to Guatemala, Dominic Republican and Thailand. We made it work and we’ve been fine tuning ever since,” he said.

Part of that fine-tuning was having enough growers on board to supply Frito Lay with their own varieties. The partnership grew to include four other growers: MacEwen Farms in New London, Klondike Farms in Kelvin Grove, Shore Lane Farms in Kensington and Eric C. Robinson in Albany. Each of the farms has their own washing and grading facilities because it was a cheaper way of doing it, explained Curley. Seed for these growers comes from Frito Lay’s own seed farms and this year Monaghan Farms did some seed trials.

Frito Lay develops all its own varieties with the assistance of growers in New Brunswick. “Each variety is developed for different markets, so they look at different aspects of the variety…some might have better colour, some might last longer,” noted Curley.

Breeding their own seed varieties as Frito Lay does, there is more then just colour and longevity that is looked at. Flavour, water content, and bruise susceptibility all play a role in the breeding process. Curley said the seed varieties are then allocated to the farms in P.E.I.

But before that happens comparing how varieties grow may mean growing several (different) varieties side by side to determine which one will grow best in P.E.I. soil. “Knowing which ones grow best here is essential before putting them out to the growers. One variety might work in Wisconsin or Idaho but might not work here, or vice versa.” He added that seed for P.E.I. could come from growers in the U.S., or somewhere in Canada.

Keeping an “eye” on the potatoes is all part and parcel of making sure the right potatoes get to market, but Curley and other growers are just as keen about keeping an eye on market destinations.

Indonesia has been added to the list of those overseas destinations and Curley said they are now looking in Southeast Asia as well. “There are more people there and the market is just starting to grow,” he said, adding they are also shipping some seed to Frito Lay growers in these countries. “But the vast majority of our business is chip stock…that is 90 per cent,” he said.

Adding more destinations for the Frito Lay potato chip potatoes has meant travel for the growers and Curley notes that just a few years has changed the landscape perspective in Asian countries. “We have seen over the last number of years some pretty big changes. For instance, there used to be a lot of bicycles and motorcycles. Now we see more cars…more middle class people and these people tend to like snack foods. If just five per cent of those people move from the poor ranks to middle class, we are talking about millions of people. So the chip industry and snack food industry in those countries is just getting going,” said Curley.

With all this chip stock going to Frito Lay plants in various parts of the world, part of the contract in P.E.I. means testing the potatoes in labs at Monaghan Farms. This is where employee Carol Bernard comes in.

“Carol does testing in the fry labs and also sugar testing in another lab,” said Curley.

Obviously pleased and proud of Bernard’s work, Curley points out any flaw is just not acceptable. But first comes the grading. He said they get a pretty good idea when potatoes are “going through” that they might not make the quality. “We’ll stop then and switch to another bin. Every load is tested to see if it is going to work and we deal directly with the plants in those countries,” he said, adding local people are employed in the overseas (countries) plants.

If any problem is detected, it shows up in the grading process, which is monitored by spreadsheets. “So if there is any bruising and/or sunburn, we can see what they are like before we haul them from a bin. We have been at it a long time and we know if we are going to have a problem,” said Curley.

The same is true for the testing in the fry lab. Bernard has worked over the years with Cavendish Farms as a scout and continues to do some of that work with Monaghan Farms as well as doing all the testing for making a perfect potato chip. “I spent a day at the Frito Lay plant in Nova Scotia and, as far as making potato chips, it’s pretty simple,” she said. It’s simple for her since she has close to 10 years of testing behind her.

“Potatoes go through a peeler and slicer and are fried in 365 F degrees fat for approximately 2.5 minutes,” said Bernard. She pointed out that the higher the gravity (density) of the potato, the less time it takes to cook. “That’s a big thing as far as the life of the oil,” she said, adding that they use the same brand of oil that Frito Lay uses in their plants. She noted that the potato most used is the FL 1879. “It is our biggest variety grown here now.”

If a chip comes out of the oil with any kind of blemish, Bernard knows it is not acceptable. “The whiter the chip, the better the quality. If it is brown, we know there is too much sugar.”

Frito Lay has come up with a way of converting the numbers that relate to sugar levels in the potatoes. That involves a small YSI machine that is specifically used in medical labs for detecting sugar levels in blood. As the potato season advances, Bernard tests potato samples in this machine to determine the sugar levels at certain stages of growth. The machine has membranes to detect the dextrose, sucrose and glucose levels. “Once the sugars get to a certain level … it is okay to kill them (potatoes) down,” explained Bernard.

With so much attention to detail, it’s easy to see why their contract with Frito Lay is 30 to 40 per cent higher than another local contract might be. This too, is determined by detail. “You can’t have issues with colour, so over the years in various provinces and states, the chip prices have always been a little higher,” he said.

“Some of the costs are higher…seed, for instance, is higher because of the varieties. And we plant more seed per acre, so that adds to the cost,” said Curley.

In the French fry market, if there is a quality issue, higher amounts may be deducted, but the potatoes will still be accepted, explained Curley. In chip stock, if the colour is off, the spuds won’t be accepted, he adds.

With this attention to detail, Curley feels Frito Lay is the highest quality potato chip on the market today. “And they are constantly striving for better. If you open a bag of Lay’s chips, you won’t see a discolouration…they are consistent,” he said.

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