Tobique Farms: Growing the Distance
Pin a world map to the wall and toss a dart at it—likely as not your dart will land near a spot where Tobique Farms’ crops have gone before. ccording to Tobique owneroperator Henk Tepper, his Drummond, New Brunswick-grown products have found a market in far-flung places, from Cuba to Russia, from the Middle East to South America.
Tepper grows about 500 acres of processing potatoes and 600 acres of seed potatoes. Along with 700 acres given to canola and another 1,200 to small grains, it’s a busy operation. At harvest, he hires about 20–30 people to augment the six fulltime staff members. “As soon as we’re done harvesting we’ll start packing potatoes for Cuba,” he says.
Cuba has been his largest market for many years. This year, he expects to send about 50,000 bags of potatoes there. Demand from Cuba is down from the peak of 80,000 bags he’s sent in previous years, but he’s always ready to adapt to change. Tepper says he’s constantly exploring new markets, new ventures and new varieties to take his potatoes further.
“I like to contract out about 80–90 per cent of my crops before I plant,” Tepper notes. “The open market is too volatile, too uncertain.”
The drive to maximize its market potential has taken Tobique Farms a long way from its origins. Almost 30 years ago Tepper’s father, Berend Tepper, came from Holland to start this Canadian farming venture in 1981, when he began growing potatoes for McCain Foods Ltd. In 1989, Tepper and his brother joined their father in the business. Last year, Tepper’s father officially retired—though, Tepper says, “He’s still around just about every day.”
Tepper says he doesn’t have time to focus on the past—he’s too busy looking to the future. That means experimenting with different varieties of potato. One in particular is looking very promising.
“These days it’s expensive growing potatoes …”
In fact, in Cuba, where trials were done, the variety has been a high-yield star. This is crucial for Tepper’s Cuban and Middle Eastern buyers. “They are looking for good tonnage. The yield for this variety is very good, and it’s a good quality that we can pack,” he says. The new variety is also proving to be disease resistant.
Currently, Tepper has about a quarter-acre in production, and the variety is being multiplied at New Brunswick’s Potato Development Centre.
Tepper’s ongoing desire to diversify also led to the installation, two years ago, of a wash plant so his operation could expand into preparing and packing five- and tenpound bags of table potatoes for markets, particularly in the United States.
As well, Tepper strives to continuously improve the operation. “We’re always trying to minimize labour and make it more efficient and faster,” he says. But continual improvement has its costs.
“These days it’s expensive growing potatoes,” he notes, adding last year, in particular, the wet weather and an early frost were compounded by the pricey chemicals needed to wage war on blight. “And then the market price was down,” he says.
Looking forward, as he usually does, he expects things will be better this year. “Knock on wood—the crop looks good, there’s good quality coming in, and the market looks promising. So we’re hoping for a better year.” Leslie Vryenhoek