Sweet Potatoes And Strawberries: A Winning Combination For Nova Scotia Farmers

When you employ more than 60 seasonal workers, you want to make sure their time is being used wisely. That search for a way to better utilize their on-farm workers led strawberry farmers Philip and Katie Keddy to the idea of growing an uncommon crop for Nova Scotia — sweet potatoes.

“It takes a lot of people to harvest strawberry plants,” says Philip, emphasizing that they are in the business of nursery plant production, not berries. “But in the end we have just two distinct harvest and packing times. Beginning mid-September our plants are hand packed to ship to our Florida customers, and then later into the fall they are harvested and hand packed for our Canadian customers,” he explains. “Sweet potatoes were a perfect fit and fell into a window of downtime between harvest times during the fall season.”

That dedication to thinking outside the box is one reason the Lakeville, NS, farmers were named the 2020 Outstanding Young Farmer’s Program award winners for the Atlantic region. The couple partners with Philip’s parents, Charlie and Doris, at Charles Keddy Farms Ltd. Along with stock strawberry plants, sweet potatoes and a few other fruit and vegetable crops, they also raise a herd of 60 to 70 beef cattle.

MISSTEPS AND SUCCESSES: THE CHALLENGES OF A NEW CROP

When the Keddys first considered bringing commercial sweet potato farming into their operation, the key questions were: Could they be successfully grown in the local climate and would the market support this venture? Turns out the answer to both questions was yes, and Keddy Farms is now the largest sweet potato producer east of Ontario, producing more than 1.5 million pounds annually.

“We are always trying to look out the window into the future and we were approached by local researchers about trying sweet potatoes,” says Katie. Everything pointed to a good fit. “The skin on sweet potatoes is delicate and requires a huge amount of labour to hand harvest, which we had, to ensure our product looks its best going onto store shelves,” she says.

They had no competition as locals were using their labour to harvest other crops at that time, adds Katie. “They fit into our rotation, and sweet potatoes were gaining popularity as a healthy food option, so we were able to immediately tap into a market gap.”

While sweet potatoes are traditionally grown in more tropical climates, the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia is one of three warm microclimates in Canada (the other two being British Columbia’s Okanagan region and southwestern Ontario) where growth is possible.

The Keddys initially grew sweet potatoes in successful one-acre trials, starting in 2007, before making the leap to commercial production in 2012. The process was not without its challenges. In that first year of commercial production they went from a single acre to five acres of sweet potatoes and lost most of the crop trying to store it in an existing warehouse. Learning a hard lesson, they invested in a climate-controlled warehouse for 2013 and doubled capacity in 2015.

The couple say that research trials have and continue to play an important role in the success of their sweet potato crop. It allows them to learn about the best way to grow sweet potatoes in Nova Scotia.

“Knowing we could potentially grow here, we still had to do things a little differently,” says Philip. “We grow our potatoes on black plastic to hold the heat in to mimic the temperature of the U.S. Carolinas, which is a prime sweet potato growing region. The ideal soil temperature for growing the potatoes is no less than 10 C (50 F) so the plastic helps maintain soil temperatures.”

The Keddys have had no issues finding a market for their crop and are able to sell everything they harvest to grocery stores and farm markets. In fact, they don’t have enough product to meet growing demand.

PARTNERING IN NEW TECH

Before there were sweet potatoes, there were strawberries and Keddy Farms is one of the largest strawberry nursery farms in Canada, providing strawberry plant stock to customers here and in the United States.

Always looking for ways to innovate and keep their competitive advantage, as well as provide healthy plants to their customers, the Keddys are currently partnered with Cornell University to build the first machine in Canada to use UV sterilization as a pest and disease management strategy in strawberry production.

“We use the light at night to primarily manage mildew and spider mites on the strawberry plants,” says Philip. “It is still really early in the testing phase but we have always worked very closely with researchers to see how we can do things better. If it’s effective, we will work with manufacturers on improving the machine. We want to be leaders in our industry, not followers, and that means trying new things.”

That often means expanding their search for new ideas and technologies outside North America. For instance, a year ago they wanted a new sprayer for the strawberry fields, but found most sprayers manufactured in North America are generally targeted to grain farmers and too large for their needs. They eventually found what they were looking for in Italy where machinery is developed for farms with a smaller footprint.

“The strawberries are what built this farm and have always fuelled our growth and allowed us the opportunity to try new things, such as being able to invest in the infrastructure needed for the sweet potatoes,” says Katie. “With our strawberry nursery plants, we need to be looking three years ahead. We deal directly with the next farmer who is producing berries for the consumer. Our success is based on our customers’ success. Our business doesn’t fall under traditional crop insurance so we have to manage our risk based on what is happening with our customers.”

While there were challenges in the beginning, they have been able to source labour throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and have not had any trucking issues moving product across the U.S. border. At this time they expect to continue to be able to do so. The question is what issues might arise in Florida this coming growing season due to the pandemic, but the Keddys remain positive and stay in contact with their customers across the border.

BUILDING, OR NOT, FOR THE FUTURE

Philip says as second-generation farmers, they have never been stuck in old ways of doing things. His parents have always embraced technology on the farm and they continue with that mindset today.

“We know the importance science and technology plays in modern Canadian agriculture,” he says. “Whether that’s robotics, or other technology, we embrace new ideas as they come.”

Properly managing their land helps them ensure the health of the farm today, while planning for the success of future generations. They currently have 60 to 70 head of cattle that they graze on pasture land not suitable for growing crops, and they feed unmarketable sweet potatoes to the cattle. While they believe investing in land is never a bad idea, they also carefully weigh the risk of continuing to get larger as a business.

Sweet potatoes were the perfect addition to the Keddy family’s strawberry plant farm. Both crops require lots of seasonal workers to hand pick the crops, which  meant little to no down time for workers.

“Looking into our future, one day it will be just Katie and I on the farm,” says Philip. “Currently, the farm runs with us and my parents working full-time in our roles. When they are no longer a part of the business, we are not at the size now where the business can run with just two people. Finding farm managers is not necessarily an easy task, and we will need people who are as invested in our business as we are. We are unique because what we crop now are high value crops that can be grown on smaller acreage when compared to other commodities.”

They have been teaching their two young sons, Charlie, 7, and Ben, 5, all about their farm and they hope they will someday join them in their business if that’s what the boys choose. The Keddys are not only second-generation farmers, they are second generation winners of the Outstanding Young Farmer’s Program. Charlie and Doris were awarded as both regional and national winners in 1992.

“It is exciting to be following in their footsteps as innovators, and we have grown and diversified the farm in part, thanks to their support and encouragement,” says Philip. “We have been able to build on their success, and learn from them about how to build connections and how to take risks to maintain growth and change in our business.”