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Potato farmer Glen Squirrell reflects on years in ‘tough’ industry

October 10, 2019   ·   0 Comments

Written By PETER RICHARDSON

 Edzell Blue, Kestrel, Yethholm Gypsy, Salad Blue, Salad Red, Cardinal, Highland Burgundy, Urenika, Canada Black, All Blue, All Red, Yellow Fingerlings, Huckleberries, Blue Fingerlings and Peruvian Purples are but a few of the varieties of coloured potatoes in this world, and if you ask local resident Glen Squirrell, he’ll tell you about most of them. 

Glen is a multi-generational farmer, based in Melancthon and he knows his varietal potatoes, because he grows them. Glen’s family has been in the River Road and Hornings Mills area since the the 1860’s. Glen comes from a long line of Irish farmers and they have always grown some form of potato. 

Today, on some 250 acres on the 3rd  line, Glen grows seed potatoes, as well as rye, for Hiram Walkers Brewery, oats and hay. He manages two farms, his own and his mother Mary’s, dating from the 1890’s. 

It is the farm Glen grew up on, attending SS11, at 4th and County Road 17, as had his mother, and then going on to CDDHS in Shelburne and, finally, Sheridan College for a business degree. 

Somewhere along the line, Glen met and married Penny Bray and together they bought the farm land just up the road from the home farm, built a home and raised four children, Mary Beth, the oldest, breeds champion King Charles Spaniels, David, who lives in Calgary, is in sales, Jon and Julie, the youngest. Julie works on the farm with her dad and Jon helps out whenever he is not driving a tow truck or working for the Township of Adjala-Tosorontio. Now retired, Penny was a teacher, first at Mulmur-Mono, Centennial, Hyland Heights and finally CDDHS.

Glen has always farmed, first with his dad, who passed in 1990 and then continuing with his mother, who had chickens and beef cattle, before she retired. The chickens are long gone, and Glen sold the cattle, preferring to concentrate on his crops. Glen’s potato efforts are in the Seed and Specialty potato sector and his seed potatoes are sold all across the province and beyond. Amongst the specialty varieties grown, are, All Blues, All Reds, Yellow Fingerlings and Huckleberries. The latter, are a purple skinned variety with a yellow flesh, that apart from tasting marvellous, are a low glycemic potato, that studies indicate, is edible by people suffering from Type 2 Diabetes. 

Potatoes are a problem for diabetes sufferers, since, although, they are very high in valuable carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, their high starch content and rapid digestibility , can cause dramatic and very rapid, spikes in blood sugar levels, which diabetics cannot always overcome. These new potato varieties mean that diabetics can now have their potatoes, and eat them too! Although Glen grows primarily for the seed market, he still has potatoes to sell to the public, including the Huckleberries.

Glen grades his potatoes on the farm, but the seed potatoes are sold whole and prepared for planting by the buyers. Potatoes are planted in spring and normally harvested starting in mid September. Both the planters and the harvesters tend to be manufactured in Germany and can range in price form $100,000+ to over $1 million depending upon their size and complexity. They are either pulled behind a tractor, like Glen’s, or may be self propelled, similar to a combine.

Glen plants his potatoes in small plots, which are each dedicated to a single variety. Once matured and harvested, the spuds are taken to the home farm, where they are sorted and graded before being bagged and readied for shipment to the buyers. 

None of Glen’s potatoes are washed before they are packaged, so as not to introduce any pathogens or chemicals to the potatoes. A side note to this, is that many of Glen’s retail customers prefer this for the same reasons plus, since no chemicals or soaps are introduced to the potatoes, their taste remains unchanged.

In Ontario, there is a Potato Board, which helps the growers to deal with the many government and market regulations and rules, as well as suggesting fresh potato prices and negotiating contracts with the processors, such as Frito Lay and other private chip companies. In addition they deal with labour issues expediting the use of offshore labour resources, plus matters of crop protection, such as insurance. The latter, will be a big issue for producers this year, as many have suffered from the long dry summer and the late season harvesting. Yields are not necessarily of either the quality or the quantity that was expected. 

Glen, reluctantly, he says, accepted a position as a director of the Potato Board and then found himself accepting the Chairmanship, which he held for 10 years. The board liaisons with other provincial boards, as well as working closely with its American counterparts. 

They meet the Americans annually, rotating between Washington DC and Ottawa as venues. In addition to the Potato Board, Glen has sat on the Agricultural Credit Corporation board and been a member of the Commodity Council, which interacts with provincial agriculture representatives to provide safety nets for the farmers and crop insurance.

Currently, Glen derives abut 60 percent, of his farm income from his potatoes, but says that the rye contracts with Hiram Walker are slowly catching up. Part of this could be the cost of each crop. Potatoes cost approximately $3,000 per acre to farm, while grain is approximately $200 per acre. 

A bad year, such as this one, with “its” hot, dry summer can devastate both crops, but the losses would be greater with potatoes as opposed to grain, Although the outlay for machinery would be similar, the labour and cost per acre, differ dramatically. 

Still, despite the difficult year this year, Glen said he will continue to farm. Although the family farm appears to be a dying industry, as fewer and fewer next generation children want to farm, those with a niche market, such as the Squirrells’, will continue to thrive amidst the milieu of huge corporate farms dominating the industry. 

The next time you happen to be sitting down with a glass of Canadian Rye Whiskey and a bowl full of purple potatoes, you can thank Glen and Penny Squirrell, for the privilege!



         

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