Nova Scotia producers try sweet potatoes

The Keddys employ about 80 people on their Nova Scotia farm with most coming from Jamaica and Mexico. | Supplied photo

On the Farm: Family’s first years growing the sub-tropical crop were closer to disaster than success but they persevered

The Keddys seem to prefer to do things the hard way, like farming.

The young couple lives in a fertile, warm, rich farming area that can grow all sorts of crops with good yields and returns. Instead of growing one of those proven winners, Katie and Phil decided to embrace something nobody else was growing, might not be well-suited to Atlantic Canada, and for which there was almost no Canadian research.

“We’re always looking for a challenge, something to really test our skills,” said Phil as he detailed how he and Katie decided to embrace growing sweet potatoes in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley near Kentville.

It was a wacky idea, but an agricultural research company already working with the Keddy family’s strawberry operation thought the crop could be a good fit with the growing conditions in the hot and moist valley, and Phil was keen to bring a new farming venture to the farm his mother and father had established years before.

They knew growing sweet potatoes would bring them many problems at the beginning, but Phil and Katie knew they wouldn’t have a problem with the senior Keddys.

“We never worried that we’re going to get the ‘it’s never been done this way’ talk because that’s not how they think,” said Katie about Doris and Charlie, Phil’s parents, who live on the original area of the farm.

“That’s how we’ve been able to make growing sweet potatoes a success.

Indeed, with their farm’s sweet potatoes in the bins of Atlantic Canada’s major grocery stores, they have turned an almost unknown vegetable to Atlantic farmers into a feasible alternative, at least for farmers with their climatic conditions, access to farm labour and willingness to take risks.

But their first years growing the sub-tropical crop were closer to a disaster than a success. One year they lost virtually the entire crop when it rotted inside an unsuitable storage barn.

The vegetables themselves came out looking funny, in a number of wrong ways. They needed to figure out if sweet potatoes could actually work in Nova Scotia.

Three generations of Keddys at home on the farm. | Supplied photo

“My mother said you either need to make this work or stop spending money on this project,” said Phil, who like Katie is a graduate of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

They doubled down on learning the in’s and outs of sweet potatoes and began getting great results, giving them a perfect commodity to fit in with the overall farm’s original focus on growing nursery strawberry plants.

That focus came from Charlie’s situation as a young man with no farm, not much money and a desire to be a farmer. After working for another farmer for eight years, he set up a strawberry operation on about half an acre of land. To him, growing that high value crop made more sense than trying to buy a bunch of land and grow conventional crops.

“You can grow modestly without having a lot of capital and equipment. We still kind of stick to that motto today,” said Phil.

Charlie and Doris built their nursery strawberry business into one of the biggest in Canada, one which exports millions of hand-packed seedlings to Florida every fall and millions to Canadian growers every spring.

Phil began working full time on the operation in 2007 after graduating from agriculture school, with Katie joining him soon after.

The couple met at the agriculture school, where Phil was finishing up his diploma and city girl Katie was working on her agriculture degree.

Katie’s father, a chef, had always focused on buying the best, freshest local ingredients, and that created an appreciation in her for farming. However, when she went to university she originally planned to become a teacher. A friend in agriculture seemed to be studying things she was more interested in, so she switched.

She met Phil “in the last time at the campus bar, in the last 10 minutes there,” Phil recalled of that brief, end-of-year meeting.

Phil and Katie kept up by email all that summer, and they saw each other often when he returned to the school to take a couple of extra classes and play rugby. That was just Phil’s pretext for being able to see Katie in person, but she didn’t figure it out for a long time.

“I didn’t clue into it until his dad began teasing him about it,” she admits.

They were married in 2010. She worked at a couple of local agriculture-related jobs in the Keddy farm’s area, then in 2014 the couple moved into a home that came along with a small piece of land the farm bought.

Their first son, Charlie, had been born two years previously. They moved into the house after Ben was born, and Katie began directing all her professional efforts toward the farm.

They found that farm life, as hectic as it was, fit perfectly with the demands of young children.

“The flexibility of the farm is what we really needed to raise two kids,” said Katie.

“We juggle it all.”

The way they fit their lives in with farming is similar to the way they fit sweet potatoes into the long-time strawberry nursery plant production.

The two crops’ planting, growing and harvesting seasons are complementary, allowing them and their workers to efficiently cover the farm’s needs.

They employ about 80 people, with most coming from Jamaica and Mexico. Some of the Jamaicans have been coming to the farm longer than Katie has been around and have the highly developed skills needed to handle fragile nursery plants so they can be shipped safely to far-off buyers.

The family’s sweet potatoes can now be found in the bins of Atlantic Canada’s major grocery stores. | Supplied photo

Keeping those buyers happy has always been a key focus of Charlie’s; an approach that Phil has embraced.

“If the customer has a good year, we have had a good year,” he said. Every year they travel to see customers and ensure what they’ve grown in the Annapolis Valley is producing good results in Florida and in other parts of Canada.

Katie has her own customer focus — consumers — who she wants to entice to eat sweet potatoes, or eat sweet potatoes in more forms than they’re used to.

She has been active on social media promoting the vegetable, offering advice, encouragement and recipes to those interested in doing more with the bright tuber.

“I want sweet potatoes to seem like the most exciting food in the world,” she said.

The Keddys haven’t seen many neighbours or anybody else in Atlantic Canada showing much interest in emulating their success with sweet potatoes. There’s a big learning curve and they require much skilled farm labour. It’s not such a challenge to grow apples, grapes or blueberries in their area.

“Nobody else has committed to it, I think, because it takes a lot of labour and there are a lot of other crops here in the valley,” said Phil.

They’re likely to remain relatively unique in their farming because of that, which might seem like a challenge.

But a challenge is not something that tends to bother the Keddy family.

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