By Melanie Epp
(Waterdown) – Fourth generation potato farmers Shawn and Chris Brenn of Waterdown have always known that if they were to get an edge on their competition, they’d have to keep up with retailer demands.
One of those retailer demands was traceability, or the ability to trace a product’s movement through the supply chain, its history and location through documentation. The Brenns started by keeping their own extensive on-farm records, and when an opportunity to participate in a grant project offered through the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) arose, they jumped on it. OMAF was offering cost-shared funding to help growers implement on-farm traceability programs and the Brenns saw this as the perfect opportunity to improve their operation.
Shawn Brenn stands in his potato storage warehouse
“We saw what was coming and felt that there was no better way to start the process than to get some assistance from OMAF,” said Shawn Brenn.
Since retailers were – and still are – more interested in dealing with farmers who have traceability programs in place, he knew that participating in the program could create further market opportunities. But the program offered additional, unexpected benefits, including increased customer confidence and loyalty, improved product quality and on-farm savings.
The meat and potatoes of traceability
Brenn-B Farms has been keeping extensive farm records for about 12 years now, since long before they implemented their traceability plan. Knowing which farm inputs they were using, how often and how much helped them to keep costs to a minimum. Today, the records they keep are much more extensive, though. Software allows them to track farm inputs, including seed, fertilizers and chemicals. Each product now also has its own unique lot number, and if needed, can be traced back to its source.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, for instance, gives seed potatoes a certified lot number, information that the Brenns store digitally. “Those seed lots and certification numbers are very important to us in case, six months down the road, we have an issue with the way the potatoes are growing,” says Brenn, adding, “or if there’s some sort of disease that we want to be able to trace back to the seed, we can do it.”
Technology has come a long way. The Brenns’ tractors, for instance, have computers in them that not only monitor crop inputs, but also everything from sprayer levels to that day’s weather conditions. It can even keep track of operational expenses, like fuel consumption.
But traceability isn’t just about monitoring inputs and cutting costs. It’s about being able to trace a product right back to its source. On Brenn-B Farms, traceability extends to packaging as well. The potatoes they grow are divided by size, package and grade, and then packaged accordingly.
“All of those items get assigned a unique number that we ink on all of the bags,” says Brenn. “The idea is that at any given time, if we’re walking through the barn, we can see a lot number on a crate, and we can see a lot number on a bag.”
In the grocery store, consumers can see that same lot number inked on the clip that seals the bag or onto the bag itself. If Brenn was to walk into a grocery store, he could plug the lot number into his smart phone, and trace that bag back to where it was produced. He can even tell how long it has sat in a warehouse before actually hitting the store shelves.
Those numbers come in especially handy if a customer is unhappy with one of his products. Brenn says he once received a call about a bag of potatoes that seemed fine on the surface, but contained potatoes whose insides were black. He was able to both determine and address the problem. The potatoes were harvested in temperatures that were slightly too cold and the insides had bruised as a result. Brenn refunded his customer’s money and gave them another bag of potatoes. Not only was he able to keep his customer happy, but he could also be sure not to make the same mistake again. All of this data helps in providing consumers with the best quality potatoes possible.
“I think most consumers now are concerned with where their food comes from and how it’s handled. With the traceability system that we have, we have all of that information for them readily available if they ever have concerns or issues,” says Brenn. “From a consumer standpoint, it’s the reassurance that we truly are tracking the products and the inputs – and the safety of the food that we’re supplying.”
To learn more about this Ontario farm business, visit www.brennbfarms.com/
This article is one in a series of profiles on Ontario farmers produced by Farm & Food Care Ontario.