Where potato chips are grown
Mmm, there’s nothing quite like cracking open a bag of fresh, crunchy potato chips.
I confess to consuming more than my fair share of the salty snacks over the years and love seeing what new flavours will be coming out next.
But one thing I’ve certainly never really thought too much about was how the contents of that crinkly bag get there in the first place.
I mean, I know chips come from potatoes and that there are farmers who specialize in growing potatoes – but that was pretty much the extent of my potato knowledge.
Well, as it turns out, there’s nothing easy about growing a perfect potato chip potato.
And after spending a couple of hours with Ontario farmer Jack Murphy on his Alliston-area potato farm recently, I have a whole new perspective on the contents of that chip bag – and on the work that farmers put into growing those potatoes just right.
Jack Murphy may be familiar to some of you from a recent series of Lay’s commercials featuring some of the farmers that grow potatoes destined to become chips.
He’s shown on his farm with his father and son, talking about what it means to be a farmer and to grow potatoes.
What you see on the screen is pretty much what you get when you meet Jack in real life: a smart, down-to-earth guy who is passionate about what he does best – growing potatoes.
Planting was just wrapping up when I visited the farm in early June.
Normally, says Jack, they like to be done by around the May 24 long weekend but the many wet days this spring made that a bit of a challenge.
Potatoes need a certain number of days in the ground in order to fully mature before they are harvested, so planting at the right time is critical.
And full maturity is important – potatoes have to be the right size and have just the right sugar levels in order for them to make the grade as a Lay’s premium potato chip.
After all, every chip in the bag should be fairly uniform in size and have that same even, light golden chip colour. For example, if the sugar levels are too high, Jack told me, the chips will fry up dark.
Planting seed potatoes
The Murphys receive their seed potatoes in early April. Because they have a contract with Lay’s for their potatoes, the Murphys must grow the varieties developed specifically by the company – these are potatoes that will have the special size, taste and quality attributes Lay’s is looking for.
When the fields are ready to plant, the seed potatoes are run through a machine that will knock the small sprouts off (like the ones that grow on your potatoes at home if you’ve had them for a while!) and cut the potato into smaller, blocky pieces.
Jack will constantly monitor the machine to make sure it’s cutting the potatoes properly and to the perfect size.
Once the seed potatoes are planted, it’s a combination of the variety, moisture and soil temperature that determines how long it takes for the plant to emerge.
And once the plant is on its way, farmers have people called crop scouts in the fields on a regular basis to monitor the crop for pests and diseases, like potato blight, which is what was behind the infamous potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s.
On Jack’s farm, potatoes are either harvested as field fry – potatoes that are dug up, washed and shipped straight to the chip plant – or they go into storage once they come out of the ground and are delivered to the plant as needed throughout the fall, winter and spring months.
In fact, when I was at the farm, they had only just shipped the last of the 2010 potato harvest to the chip plant.
The plant’s foliage starts to die off when potatoes are ready for harvest in late summer. They’re dug out of the ground by a big machine and hauled off the field by truck.
Before they go to market, they’re sorted to make sure only the best, premium potatoes are sent to the chip plant. Potatoes that don’t make the grade are often sold as feed for cattle.
The average potato farm in Ontario is between 700 and 800 acres in size; the Murphys are growing potatoes on 500 acres. In case you’re wondering what that actually means, one single acre is about ¾ the size of a football field.
In Ontario, farmers aim to produce about 30,000 pounds of potatoes per acre, but according to Jack, some farmers in the U.S. are yielding double or more than that.
A potato is like an egg
Throughout the entire growing and handling process, says Jack, farmers have to be really careful not to bruise the potato.
Bruising affects their quality, which will come through in the chipping process (and ultimately means farmers get paid less), so the key, he explains, is to handle them gently and “treat potatoes like they’re eggs.”
Who knew? Delicate is not a word I’d ever associated with potatoes before!
On the subject of getting paid, I also learned on my visit that farmers like Jack only get paid for their potatoes when they are delivered to the chip plant and deemed acceptable for processing.
This can can be months after harvest depending on when the potatoes go to market, and for some loads, up to a year after the farmer had to first spend all the money to buy the seed potatoes and other inputs like fertilizers at the start of planting season.
That’s a long time to wait for a return on an investment, and given the uncertainties of our weather and the never-ending threat from pests and disease, there are never any guarantees.
But Jack takes all of this in stride. After all, farming is in his blood.
Jack’s grandfather started farming in Alliston in the 1930s.
His father, who still helps out on the farm at age 83, bought their current farm property in 1953 and his 15-year-old son Jake is also interested in being part of the family business.
“We just try to do the best job we can to grow the best potatoes possible,” he says.
And what more could we really ask for?
Here are some more photos from my visit: