Technology helps these young farmers balance work and home life

Jill Ebbett and Robert Anderson have many goals for their potato seed farm, and they all centre around the idea of using technology to farm smarter. The idea of working from sun-up to sundown didn’t work for them, so they adapted their farming practice to find a better balance for themselves, and still produce a high-quality product for their customers.

“We are hardworking people but the idea that being a farmer had to look a certain way never made sense to us,” says Jill. “Family vacations are a priority to us. We don’t want to work every evening and Saturdays, and we never bought into the idea that, as farmers, you have to constantly work. Since our early days on the farm my husband Robert and I have established a more balanced work and home life — we work hard and also take time to enjoy each other and our family.”

In order to keep their farm productive and successful while still maintaining balance, the two are always looking to innovative products and technologies on their East Glassville, NB potato farm. They have identified a number of tools to help them reach their goals while meeting their customers’ needs. These are some of the reasons they were named the 2018 Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award winners for the Atlantic region.

THE VALUE OF NEW TECH

Robert is the fourth generation to farm his family’s registered potato seed operation. The couple took over management in 2000 and have been constantly upgrading the facilities ever since.

They implemented a GPS system to help track and manage crop production, and they invested in two new potato storage facilities supported by a computerized storage management system to keep the potatoes fresher and ready for shipping. The storage technology is a new take on ice block technology, which has been used for many years, except today the ice is replaced by Styrofoam surrounded by concrete to prevent temperature fluctuations, thereby improving overall quality.

“With the computerized storage management system, the fans turn on and off when the temperature is right,” says Robert. “I no longer have to go into » the storage shed four or five times a day and turn the fans on and off on my own. I can look at my smart phone and adjust anything I need from wherever I happen to be. That’s been an incredible time saver.”

Jill says one of the most exciting innovations was the decision to plant whole seed. They purchased a new shaker sizer grading system that was installed two years ago to allow them to better size seed for whole seed planting. “Before we made the investment, Robert collaborated with other farmers to test the technology,” she says. He worked closely with his customers to make sure he was delivering what they wanted and expected.”

FOCUS ON SUSTAINABILITY

While much of their upgrades have made them more productive, they have also implemented processes that continue to make them more sustainable. For example, the couple has reforested 3,000 acres of woodland and continue to plant native spruce trees wherever land unsuitable for planting has been cleared.

“Soil health is important to all farmers, but especially potato farmers,” says Robert. “Not a piece of our land is flat and our soil is very shallow so we manage every inch. We manage our crop rotations to maintain soil fertility and moisture where we can,” he explains.

“We terrace the rolling fields and we use a reversible mould board plow across the hills to roll soil up and work against gravity. We do contour ploughing to help control erosion and work hard to build soil organic matter.”

CUSTOMER-DRIVEN DECISIONS

Robert says their goal is to produce what their customers are asking for, not what they are most comfortable growing, which sometimes means making changes. Today there is an increased demand for virus-free potato seed in two to three different sizes, so that is what Elite has been supplying. “We start shipping in the winter to Florida and then follow the Eastern seaboard up north into Maine,” he says. “Then we ship again in early spring around the Maritimes.”

Potatoes take up more of their time than just on the farm. Jill works full time for McCain Foods where she manages the Customer Service for Canada and Export department, while Robert is an active member of the New Brunswick Potato Technology Initiative Board.

They also parent four young girls — Olivia (9), Cathryn (7), Jeneva (5) and Charlotte (3) — so finding that balance between farming, work and home life hasn’t always been easy.

“It has been a journey,” says Jill. “In my early years on the farm I thought to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ It’s a lot of hard work. I am most proud of my husband, how he has taken over the business from his father using generations of knowledge passed down to him and aligning it with his own vision and today’s farming needs.”

The two hope that someday, one or more of their girls will take over the family farm if they choose. “I think it’s exciting for them to have the opportunity to work on the farm and run their own business,” says Jill. “Once upon a time that meant they would marry someone who wants to farm and while that could still happen, I want them to know I believe in them — any one of them could make an excellent entrepreneur and it’s terrific to watch women rise up in a profession dominated by men.”

In the coming years, Robert would like to see more diversification on their farm. “We explore everything we can to make our land produce for the long term,” he says. “We are also looking at different cover crops, compacting the soil better, and at unique rotations. We’re not so much looking to get bigger, we are looking to get more integrated for better time management. We want to spend more time managing the business and less time working for the business.”