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Potatoes the ‘what’ but how and why also important at Emre Farms

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

For Charles ‘Chuck’ Emre, it’s not only the what but the how and the why.

Emre Farms’ ‘what’ is a mixture of potatoes, asparagus and cover crops with the ‘how’ directly related to the third, a back to the future approach optimizing the latter’s natural benefits.

Charles ‘Chuck’ Emre is encouraged to see a fifth generation stepping forward to continue a family farming tradition. Pictured here, left to right, are: Charles Emre, Linda Emre, Nick Bell, grandson Lukas Bell and Emily Bell (nee Emre).

“We’re not doing anything new,” Emre said. “We are merely going back to what our grandfathers did. Before commercial pesticides and fertilizer were available, this is how they farmed.”

Diversified use of cover crops puts another tool in a farmer’s box says Emre, in effect a modern incarnation of pioneering principles.

“We are utilizing a system that combines what’s available with what worked for them.”

Emre is a fourth-generation farmer whose base of operations is a piece of Norfolk County property his great-grandfather settled on in the early 1930s. Chuck’s father Charles Sr. began a transition out of tobacco, which has evolved to a focus more on potatoes than asparagus.

“Over time, we’ve gradually shifted.”

What began as 75-pound burlap bags of potatoes for sale became 50-pound burlap sacks, and subsequently ten-pound paper bags and cartons, mirroring a similar varietal transition from the original red and white.

“We can offer more than two dozen types of potatoes based on package size, potato size, and colour.”

Charles Emre in a field of mustard he utilizes as a natural rotational fumigant helping promote soil-friendly potato cropping practices.

Emre potatoes are grown, harvested, sorted, packaged and then delivered from the farm. Marketed through the Ontario Food Terminal, over 90 per cent end up in Ontario, with the balance also enjoyed in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and United States.

“It’s what our farm has morphed into over the years,” says Emre, adding that like his counterparts, the family business has tried to adjust to market demands. “That’s what all of us do.”

The successful effort has resulted from a highly-valued team considered an extended farm family. Emre credits long-term members, including one who started as a teenager currently in his mid-40s whose parents worked for his parents, and offshore workers with 25-plus years of service, contributors Emre considers work with rather than for the operation.

“We work together,” he emphasized.

Charles and Linda Emre display some of the two dozen types of Emre Farms potatoes based on package size, potato size, and colour.

Challenges are part of farming he continued, on an annual, monthly, weekly and daily basis. Those too have morphed over time Emre believes, becoming more, rather than less stressful.

“Our biggest challenges today are dealt with from within our offices,” he said. “Mother Nature still plays her form of cruel jokes on us, but I can deal with the weather a lot easier today than what’s coming with COVID-19, or certain regulatory hurdles.”

Two decades of soil amendment investigation in part through the use of cover crops instigated by membership in the Ontario Soil Network has not only provided complementary support for commercial cropping but an outlet for constructive creativity and the development of a side interest.

“That’s sort of been my therapy over the last few years,” says Emre.

Cover crops is a broad term including nitrogen fixers like radishes or clover which may be inter-seeded with corn. Or a multi-species pollinator-friendly blend featuring sunflowers, peas, oats and turnips planted post-harvest of a rye crop, for example, for beneficial biomass and soil-amendment.

“You are encouraging a diverse eco-system both above and below the soil.”

These crops may not be harvested commercially, but along with long-term soil improvement can provide significant benefits for those which are. A primary example is mustard crops Emre rotates with potatoes. Not to be confused with mustard grown to ultimately grace hot dogs, this variety is high in glucosinolates. Rather than harvested it is flailed (macerated), incorporated and sealed into the ground, acting as a natural bio-fumigant replacing its chemical counterpart.

Broad-based benefits are such one crop of potatoes per 24 months per unit of ground is an acceptable tradeoff. “It’s a different mindset,” said Emre.

Having experienced the impact of Canadian/U.S. dollar or Canadian dollar/ Euro exchange, Emre has worked at developing a home grown option. Following three years of western field trials, he looks forward to planting the first seed propagated in Canada this spring, 2021.

“I’m pretty excited about it.”

Therein lies a portion of the ‘why’ for a proponent of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote on success capped by the phrase ‘to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.’

A desire to grow and share the best possible crops Emre is happy to serve to his own family in a manner promoting soil structure and health while cutting down on pesticide and commercial fertilizer use is part of that definition.

“We know we can’t eat them all, so we look at it as it’s not just our crop, it’s everybody’s crop.”

So too is a view combining stewardship with ownership.

“Our name is on the deed to the farm and we are the ones responsible for the taxes, but at the end of the day we are just tenants on the land we occupy. Right now it’s my turn, but we are not here forever.

“When the next tenants start here, if we can leave the soil better than we found it, I think that’s pretty satisfying.”

And finally, it also incorporates continuity, the potential to take a grandchild hunting on the same piece of ground his grandfather took him, or the fact he and wife Linda’s daughter Emily and son-in-law Nick Bell have joined the operation for the past couple of years, and Emily’s brothers, still in school, have also expressed interest.

“It comes down to improving our soil health and seeing the next generation coming along. To know that we’ve done this and there is a fifth generation that has started here is fulfilling and enjoyable.


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