Andrew and Heidi Law-less, the 2014 Outstanding Young Farmer nominees representing the Atlantic Canada region, are both from a P.E.I. farming background. Heidi grew up on a mixed farm (purebred Angus cattle, potatoes and grain). Andrew is the third generation on the Lawless potato farm a stone’s throw from the little town of Kinkora where he and Heidi and their four children now live.
“I can see the farm from my front deck,” says Andrew in a late October phone interview.
The young couple who operate Hilltop Produce are in partnership with three other farmers. Most years the four partners maintain about 1,200 to 1,300 acres in potato production.
As in any farming venture, margins keep getting tighter, but signing on with P.E.I.’s Environmental Farm Plan has yielded the farm several benefits including helping to reduce input costs.
The EFP program helps farmers develop a plan for operating their farm in a way that is environmentally sustainable and economically viable. The plan assesses and addresses all environmental risks and opportunities on the farm including proper storage of pesticides and fuel, water and nutrient management and erosion control.
For Hilltop Produce Ltd., implementing the EFP has meant several changes in production practices that include a move toward minimum tillage as much as possible, strip cropping, developing field berms to control runoff and planting hedgerows of white spruce or pine.
“We have harsh winters,” says Andrew. “When the snow melts we can get some bad runoff. We want to try to negate that as much as we can.”
Reducing the use of farm chemicals is another component of their plan. This means scouting before spraying, applying chemical only when absolutely necessary and using banding application of products — spraying the chemical directly onto the crop row at the same rate as that prescribed for broadcast application. This practice is not only better for the environment, but also improves the bottom line in terms of input costs because it uses fewer chemicals.
Working with their farming partners, Andrew and Heidi have built three state-of-the art storage facilities where they can store potatoes for up to a year. Two of the buildings have a five million pound capacity. The third holds 10 million pounds of potatoes. The same partners have built a commercial potato washing facility, which is available to all P.E.I. potato growers and equipped with an optical sorter that can process 80 tons per hour.
Looking back, Andrew says the most important element in the success of their farm business has been their willingness to take advice and work with others, referring to their joint ventures which led to the storage and washing facilities. “That’s what contributed to our success,” he said.
Looking ahead they see the business growing which will mean more land. “It just seems to be the way of the future,” says Andrew. “You’re either in or you’re out. We’re in for the long haul and we have great business partners, which allow us to keep growing. ”
In the area of continuing education, Andrew feels he has benefited from his involvement with the Atlantic Ag Leadership program. It’s an opportunity to meet with other farmers and hear speakers on topics such as agro business management, public relations and human resources. The group has also done a study tour to the U.S. and will go to the Netherlands in February.
Heidi works off farm as a Grade 2 teacher. She has been a 4-H leader and has taught children’s liturgy and Grade 1 religion classes. She’s also involved with the local home and school organization. Community participation is important to them but they’re careful not to over commit.
“We have a young family and at this stage of the game if you don’t realize that comes first your success is going to be limited, isn’t it?” says Andrew. “You’ve got to take the time and make sure you enjoy these years. They go by so fast.”