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  • Norfolk Farms

Potatoes never get old on the farm or around the table

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

Brad and Steve Blizman grew up digging, not for gold but for the riches found in a good hill of potatoes. These third generation farmers started on the farm lending a hand wherever it was needed when they were kids and are now sustaining their two families on what they grew up knowing and learning along the way.

Steve (left) and Brad Blizman grew up on the family potato farm on the outskirts of Delhi. Under the guidance of their parents and grandfather, the pair have now made the family farm their business. (Contributed photo)

Discovered in the 16th century by Spanish explorers in Peru, the modern potato is grown worldwide today. It was largely the Irish immigrants who introduced the potato to Canada in the early 1900s. It didn’t take long before others quickly learned of the delicious taste but also the versatility of the vegetable.

Steve Blizman Senior, the grand-father to Brad and Steve, saw an opportunity for his farm on the out-skirts of Delhi on the West ¼ Line as potatoes had become a cheap reliable food staple. The next 48 years would see much change, but change the Blizman family could be most proud of.

Today, potatoes are Ontario’s largest fresh vegetable crop and the average annual crop in the province is about 37,000 acres — Brad and Steve Jr. harvest 450 acres of that total. They have another 200 acres of cover crops like corn and beans. Their grandfather regularly visits and is continually astounded at how far the farm and industry has come and how it continues to evolve.

“Grandpa Steve is 86 and still comes around and he sits on a bench. He can’t believe the automation and the speed at which we can produce,” Brad said. Compared to the days when he threw the potatoes in hampers and washed them with a garden hose – things are very different.”

Their grandfather as well as parents Bob and Karen are credited with teaching the boys the ropes of growing spuds. As for the marketing side of things, Brad can recall making midnight trips to the Ontario Food Terminal when he was just 14 years old.

“That’s what taught me a lot about marketing – the good, the bad and the ugly,” he explained. “It proved how quickly the industry changes –almost everyday.”

Although they no longer sell at the terminal, the lessons and relationships the young men built in the wee hours of the morning outside Toronto are ones they rely on today as contracts are negotiated. “I enjoy sales,” Brad said. “Although it can be stressful at times, at the end of the day you end up working with good people in the business.”

Brothers Brad and Steve Blizman are fourth generation potato farmers and grow 450 acres of potatoes — 80 per cent of the potatoes can be found in Ontario grocery stores while the remainder cross the border into the US.

Although potatoes were once thought to be an easy crop to grow in Ontario due to the long hot summer days, cool nights and plentiful water, increased demand and increased competition has meant growers have had to adapt over time.

The Blizman brothers don’t get much down time on the farm as winters are spent sourcing seed from Quebec and Manitoba, as well as solidifying contracts with companies. Brad also sits as Vice-Chair on the fresh side of the Ontario Potato Board.

When seed arrives, usually sometime in March, it is stored in a climate-controlled facility until fumigation and plowing is completed. Planting begins mid-April, as long as the risk of frost is not an issue, and continues through May and often into early June. Getting seed into the ground early gives the brothers an opportunity to get into the early market. Seventy-five per cent of their crop is white potatoes and the rest yellows.

Once planted, the brothers spend a few weeks on the land cultivating and hilling up. Then herbicide for weed control is applied. After that work is complete, Brad said all you can do is pray for water.

Potatoes are 80 per cent water; therefore, irrigation is a must most years. This past growing season the Blizman brothers began irrigating early June and wrapped up 14 weeks later in September. In the midst of watering harvest arrived mid-July, which was a daily task right into November.

Although potatoes are underground, and are at less risk of frost damage in the earlier months of the year, once the ground frost hits around October, the crop can develop what is called cold weather bruising. Like most crops, timing is everything and of course Mother Nature always has her role to play.

When it comes to getting the work done, many hands make lighter work and Brad said Blizman Farms would not be the success it is without their workforce of about 20. More than half the team arrives from Mexico each year and the rest are locals who drive truck.

“Our workers are like family to us,” Brad said. “Some of our guys have been coming up for 12 or 13 years and I text them all year round.”

All sales off the Blizman farm are now fresh market – table stock as Brad described them. The majority of their potatoes – 80 per cent -- make it into Ontario grocery stores while the remaining 20 per cent are sold on the East Coast of the United States. In local stores it’s hard to pick out any one farm’s potatoes these days as grocery chains now have their own independent generic bags.

As with any farm this past growing season, COVID-19 created numerous hassles especially around offshore labour. But Brad explained each week brings new challenges most years and be-ing organized and realizing anything can happen is key to meeting those challenges head on. “That’s farming,” Brad chuckled. “You pray for the best.”

It does seem no matter how much time pass-es, no matter how much the industry changes the love of potatoes and all the ways they can be enjoyed never grows old. 


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