Norfolk Potato Company striving to ‘keep growing and getting better’
Updated: May 10
It’ll be like Christmas morning when Gerdon Broekstra ‘unwraps’ his brand new British potato bagging machine.
Sourced from The United Kingdom, the stainless steel unit is precisely accurate, able to handle either five or ten-pound paper or ‘poly’ bags and is anticipated to expand sales opportunities for The Norfolk Potato Company (Nopoco).
“We’re hoping to see a sizeable increase in production,” Broekstra said on a wintry January afternoon, already looking forward to the 2023 season. “It’s when you can do those specialty products, they usually pay more, they’re worth more and you’re working more.
“Which is good for everyone here, we all need hours, we all need income.”
The Nopoco’s foundational story stretches back over 30 years when Gerdon’s wife Diane’s parents Bruno and Luella Kuska began growing a half-acre of hand-dug, washed and sorted potatoes for another person to sell at a local market. Their focus on potatoes rose with tobacco’s decline, reaching around 25 acres of production when Diane and Gerdon joined the operation in 2016.
“They were at an age of slowing down, we were at an age where if we wanted to make it our full-time gig, we had to go all in,” the latter explained.
From that time, acreage has been expanded to around 200 in total, with corresponding advances in machinery and production capability. The goal is to expand over time in an incremental and as far as the term applies to the farming world, affordable fashion. There’s lots of new equipment Broekstra would ‘love to have.
“(But) it seems like any time you want to buy a piece of equipment, it’s $100,000 to $300,000.”
Scalability would be a major difference between cash cropping and potatoes he believes, given it may be less challenging to plant, grow and harvest another 300 acres of corn, soybeans or wheat for example, with existing machinery.
“With potatoes you can’t take that big of a jump without investing in infrastructure, most of it being irrigation, but also being able to process your extra crop in a timely fashion too.”
Gerdon’s background as a ‘wrench’ (mechanic) included transport trucks, boats, race cars and hot rods, before evolving into an industrial millwright at a sand and gravel business. Experience there with conveying, washing and screening equipment has proven valuable, and amongst the most enjoyable aspects of his career change.
“And I like the potato part too.”
His attendance at a potato conference in Denver underlined just how different that ‘potato part’ can be. In broad terms, he found growers from the west tend to focus on the fast food franchise french fry market, those from around Alliston are more into potato chips, while Norfolk County’s beneficial terroir (combination of soil and climate) often produces high-quality fresh-dug potatoes destined for retail.
“They want quality,” he summed up. “The retail guys want nice-looking potatoes so when they go on the shelf, that’s what customers see.”
Nopoco produces ‘mainly white and yellow, a bit of russet, and just a little bit of red,’ potatoes. Preferred size is dependent on the customer and where they are going, with a premium offered for small potatoes, in season.
“That market stops after Labour Day,” Broekstra explained. “It’s hard to get rid of them after Labour Day.”
Timing is everything with production as well. Broekstra, like his Norfolk County compatriots, is all about freshness.
“The minute it’s dug, it’s getting washed and put on a truck.”
Nopoco product is mostly marketed through wholesalers, with end buyers among the major big box grocery chains. Broekstra retains a few local customers although labour shortages exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic and legislated restrictions proved problematic.
During peak summer production Nopoco employs up to 18 employees, including his wife Diane. A teacher by profession, she assumes the role of food safety coordinator during her two-month summer break, and has also been known to help with irrigation in any spare time beyond that. All employees are local rather than sourced through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Labour is his number one challenge admits Broekstra, who balances the effort of finding good, dependable people against a potential $400,000-$500,000 investment in bunkhouse space. Against that option, he believes he can pay a little more for local labour and invest in increased mechanization. The latter may lead to less jobs, but also higher-skilled, higher-paid operator jobs, helpful in keeping employees long-term.
He references an uncle who told him, ‘if you want to be an employer, you have to employ’, translatable as offering good jobs and consistent work, not two hours one day and 14 the next.
“To me, it’s a huge deal,” said Broekstra. “I want to pay them back for what they’re here for.”
Every crop has its challenges says Broekstra, “and potatoes have no shortage of them.” He lists scab and water, namely having enough for irrigation, as paramount. There is also the need to constantly evolve, most recently to approach production in as environmentally-friendly a manner as possible. It can also be challenging to try and find new varieties, as his recent experience with one in particular underlined. The potato in question had a great yield, beautiful look and perfectly white flesh.
“Everything,” said Broekstra, figuring they’d be great in 50-pound bags for french fries, save for one important factor.
“This particular potato did not fry,” he smiled. “You’ve got to be careful of what you’re growing.”
There is no doubt his career shift and he and Diane’s shared commitment to the Nopoco has been an experience, a challenging one at times with a huge learning curve. But it has also been extremely rewarding, and a decision he has embraced rather than regretted.
“I love the whole challenge in itself,” he summed up. “We figured this out and we’re growing every year and making a name for ourselves. We’re just trying to keep growing and getting better.”