Prince Edward Island potato growers Andrew and Heidi Lawless clearly know a thing or two about farming. They, along with Myron and Jill Krahn of Carman, Man., were named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2014, an award handed out annually to recognize farmers and farm couples who exemplify excellence in their profession.
Spud Smart caught up with Andrew Lawless on the morning of June 11, when he was planting his last 30 acres of potatoes. “We are about a week behind our normal schedule,” he said. “It’s been a late spring, but all is going well.”
Andrew and Heidi own and operate Hilltop Produce Ltd. in partnership with Andrew’s parents, Neville and Bertha Lawless. He’s a third-generation farmer who’s been farming alongside his dad since he was five years old.
“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and I’m very fortunate to be able to do it,” Andrew said. “I love farming and my dad still works with me every day. If it weren’t for my parents, I probably wouldn’t be farming today.
“I have a great deal of respect for my parents,” Andrew added. “That’s one thing he has learned through the years — if you respect your elders, doors will open for you.
The rich red soils of the Island allow Lawless and three other growers, who formed a joint venture called R&L Farms, to farm more than 1,000 acres of potatoes each year. All of the potatoes produced — Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Shepody and Prospect — are for the processing market and are grown in a three-year rotation with wheat or barley under-seeded with hay.
Andrew explained that through the joint venture, he and his partners are able to capitalize on efficiencies by sharing all direct costs. This includes land base, storage, labour, equipment and maintenance.
“Each person has a percentage that they put in and that’s essentially what they get out,” Andrew said. “It’s not an arrangement that would work for everyone, but it works for us.”
He’s a firm believer it’s important to keep positive no matter what challenges you encounter. With farming and its many variables and uncertainties, it is easy to get stressed-out. “Don’t get worked up over the little things,” said Andrew, who is out the door at 5 a.m. and doesn’t get back home until late in the evening during busy times.
Like many other farmers, Andrew sees the continuous tightening of margins. “Whatever we can do to decrease our costs and remain sustainable is a huge bonus,” he said, adding he isn’t afraid of change and challenges himself to think outside of the box.
“We are always willing to try and adopt new practices,” Andrew said, noting that they try to plant the best seed, at the best planting time, and even conduct trials to test performance.
Andrew is always looking for for opportunities to diversify, which helps protect him against reduced margins and the volatility associated with farming. For example, Andrew along with two other farmers identified the need for a new potato washing facility in the area and together they created RWL Holdings. It operates a facility that is equipped with new optical-sensing sorting equipment and provides a high-speed, high-volume service that will help to provide processors with a more consistent product.
Andrew explained that even though this was a significant capital investment up-front, it should provide stability and added income long-term. “If we ever had a natural disaster or a year of heavy blight, this would be in place to maximize our return and that of other Island growers, instead of being forced to dispose of the crop,” he said.