You might know that Prince Edward Island potatoes are world famous and you might even know why – the iron-rich red soil exclusive to the Island. But I think that there is another reason why our potatoes are the best- the passion of our farmers. It isn’t a job but a labour of love. How many people would choose to work 16 hour days with the responsibility of being a meteorologist, mechanic, and chemist all in the run of a day and love every minute of it? I was lucky enough to get to spend the day with one of these hard-working farmers and witness firsthand what makes them so special.
Being an Island Insider means I get to go behind the scenes to learn about things unique to PEI and then share it with all of you. So on a sunny day in June I visited my first potato farm, a rite of passage to living on this beautiful Island. Andrew Lawless of Hilltop Produce Ltd. in Kinkora was kind enough to allow me to tour his farm during planting season and even let me drive shotgun on his tractor – an adventure in itself! The tractors of today are equipped with GPS, cameras and lots of gadgets – more what I imagined a spaceship to be like than an agricultural vehicle.
Andrew is a farmer like his father was and his father before that, stretching back over 4 generations. Farming is in their blood, Andrew started out as a young boy helping out after school and now as a father himself, his small children are already showing an interest. The soil isn’t just red, it is imbedded with memories and legacies. Ninety-eight percent of Island farms are family run and PEI boasts Canada’s first commercial production of potatoes in 1790.
Potato farming is also culturally important to PEI’s history with most people who grew up here having a potato story to recall. My mother-in-law remembers school being shut down during the potato harvest so that the children could help out their local farmers. It could be grueling work but the hearty meal at the end of the day with the farmers made it worthwhile because you felt a part of the family and your community. Even today, the excitement Islanders feel when the first batch of new potatoes hits the markets and roadside stands is infectious.
Despite the longstanding traditions, many young people are moving away for work and shying away from farming – making Andrew a unique breed. He is among the new generation of farmers – collaborative, industrious, and innovative. Don’t just take my word for it, Andrew and his wife, Heidi, were recently recognized as the Atlantic Outstanding Young Farmers for 2014 sponsored by Farm Credit Canada and other industry partners. In recent years they have grown the farm to produce over 40 million pounds of Russet variety potatoes, joint ventured with Gerry, Peter and Austin Roberts of Roberts Farm to form R&L Farms, and invested in new technology.
As I peer over the expansive field, more aptly dressed for a yoga class than seed planting, worrying about the red dirt staining my inappropriate shoes, I thought it may be simple for many of us to feel removed from the farming industry, but that is far from the truth. The economic benefits are extensive starting with the offshoots from the purchase of land and equipment, and labour required for the processing facilities. But overall, I can’t help but feel proud that it goes beyond monetary impact, PEI has the strictest environmental regulations in Canada, one being that potato fields can only be rotated every 3 years. This means that profit margins may not be the best in the country, but the potatoes are of the highest quality.
With the intersection of technology, environmental stewardship, and good old-fashioned hard work, Island farmers like Andrew are ensuring that PEI potatoes remain the best for another 200 years.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will check on the growing crop, followed by the potato harvest and, of course my favourite, I will take our red spuds to the kitchen for a taste test and share one of my recipes in Part 3.