By Trudy Kelly Forsythe
McKenna family grows potatoes, turnips and carrots.
There’s a lot of work that goes into the potatoes, turnips and carrots on your dinner plate. Just ask Gordie and Andrea McKenna. The couple grow all three of the root vegetables in Newton, Prince Edward Island, with their three children – six-year-old Charlie Anne, nine-year-old Alexandrea and 11-year-old Coy – and Gordie’s parents – Greg and Karen.
With the assistance of 16 employees, the family grows approximately 500 acres of potatoes each year on their fifth-generation operation, Country View Farms. Seventy per cent go to the processing market while 15 per cent go to the local seed market. The remaining 15 per cent of fresh potatoes goes to a small retail market in Ontario.
They grow the carrots and turnips on a 300-acre vegetable farm Gordie and Andrea purchased from a neighbour in 2020, recognizing the business opportunity it offered the family and for them to diversify.
“It was a great opportunity for us to give the kids hands-on experience right from the beginning, from purchasing the farm to building it up,” says Andrea, explaining they see opportunity to grow the vegetable farm, Bunny Burrow Vegetable Co., that’s different than the traditional things done with potato farms. “We see a lot of potential in the agriculture and food sectors and this was a business opportunity for us to try a lot of that on our own.”
Approximately 15 employees help them on Bunny Burrow with 100 acres of turnips destined for fresh (70 per cent) and processing (30 per cent) markets and 50 acres of fresh market carrots destined for the PEI Vegetable Growers Co-op in Charlottetown.
Farming in PEI
Agriculture on PEI is unique, offering diverse situations mere miles apart from each other, including three different soil types. While potatoes are the principal crop on the Island, dairy remains prominent and the beef industry is starting to make a comeback.
Monitoring and building soil health is extremely important to all farmers. In 2017, Gordie and Andrea started a Precision Ag Services Company that offers automated soil sampling and SWAT mapping services (SWAT = soil, water, and topography).
“There’s not too many places in Canada where there’s such a high concentration of farming in such a small area,” says Gordie. “Understanding our land and environment is critical.”
Growing the crops
Gordie says all three crops require a lot of attention, although he admits growing the potato crop is more mechanized than the carrot or turnip crops.
“The potato industry is so world renowned, it is the leader for technology enhancements,” he says. “There’s a lot of amazing machines available to make potato farming more efficient.”
Even though there are less acres of carrots, they demand a more intensified management plan because of their fragile nature and sensitivity to the elements, insects and weather patterns. Once they are grown, however, the actual carrot harvest is quite simple.
“I have a mechanical carrot harvester and all my carrots are dug, loaded onto bulk trucks and delivered straight to the Vegetable Co-op where they’re sized, graded, cleaned and stored in climate-controlled storages at the Co-op,” says Gordie.
On the other hand, turnips are very labour intensive, with the McKennas and their staff handpicking all 100 acres of the turnips each season.
“Each turnip I sell is handled at least three times before it gets to the marketplace,” says Gordie. “There’s not a lot of automation in the turnip fresh market world.”
When ready to harvest, the McKennas and their staff hand-pick all of the turnips, hand-sort them on a cart in the field then place them in storage boxes in a cold, climate-controlled storage facility. When it comes time to ship, they run them over an inspection table, trim the turnip for appearance improvement, then bag and ship them to market.
The family farm
While Gordie grew up on his family’s potato farm, Andrea came to farming later in life, working in the agriculture sector before marrying Gordie. As well as raising her family and managing Bunny Burrow’s bookkeeping and administration, Andrea is the Executive Director of the East Prince Agri-Environment Association where she specializes in pairing researchers with farmers to do in-field, real-time, real-context research.
She and Gordie both see the benefits of raising kids on a farm. All three children work in various areas of the two farms, including working with the seeds, scouting the fields, helping with potato, carrot and turnip harvest, rock picking and helping to prepare the land.
Gordie’s parents are also heavily involved with Greg working as the head of the potato operations and handling much of the mechanical work. He and Gordie share the task of potato crop decisions. Karen works in the office, doing the bookwork and administration for the potato farm as well as being hands on in the field in the spring and fall.
“Agriculture is an extremely rewarding industry to work in, whether you’re a primary producer, or a support person to the industry,” says Andrea. “There’s a lot of really good jobs and careers in agriculture, and to be able to give our kids that firsthand experience and opportunity is important to us. I just think they will be better, well-rounded individuals for having this experience.”
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