Cooks working for one of Canada’s top chefs are peeling potatoes grown in Corbett Marcus Koenig moved his family to Canada from Switzerland to start Klondyke Farms, just north of Corbett, in spring 1997. Today, the farm is an organic operation that supplies a farmers’ market in Toronto and several restaurants, including renowned chef Jamie Kennedy’s chain. Klondyke potatoes can be found in all of their potato dishes, including potato gratin, organic fries, and their famous poutine. “With our catering business, there are many dishes that go out with his potatoes on a daily basis,” says Michael LeClair, assistant manager of the chain’s Gilead Café. “One of JK’s philosophy’s is everything local and organic. Local definitely comes first for us.” It’s a philosophy that fits in well with Koenig’s personal story.
As told to Casey Lessard Photos by Casey Lessard
We had a mixed vegetable, dairy and cash crop farm in Switzerland, very small and very intensive. When we came here, we took over a potato operation that grew roughly 800 acres of potatoes conventionally. I had more and more trouble with chemicals, health-wise. In 2001, it was very bad and I could hardly work. Just by accident, I got a book about a different way to look at the soil from an organic, natural standpoint. That got me started on the organic thing. I needed an eye-opener to see there was another potential way to do it. I couldn’t keep spraying. For us, it was either sell the farm or go organic. The University of Toronto needed a local (meaning Southwestern Ontario) supplier of potatoes. We are not a large acreage grower, but for an organic grower with 30 to 50 acres of potatoes, we are one of the larger ones. They needed someone who could give them a continuous supply of potatoes. They called me up, and I said they should go to Pfennings, and because they sell my potatoes. They said, “No, we’re not going to do that. When we pay a premium, we want that premium to end up in the producer’s hands. Otherwise, we’re not going to do it.” I think that’s a very healthy way of thinking, and I was impressed, so we thought maybe we should supply them. They liked our products because we supply them with the varieties they need and we know how each variety behaves in the kitchen. We give them new stuff to try, and if they don’t like it, we don’t supply it. They get what they need and for us, it’s more work because we have to go to Toronto, but we are able to capture the wholesale premium, the delivery premium, and keep it for ourselves. On a long-term basis, we can justify it. A Toronto farmers’ market focused on bigger volume producers approached us. Most farmers’ markets want people who will supply quarts of apples or quarts of potatoes, but they wanted people who could supply bushels and bigger volumes. I wasn’t really interested in doing it, but they kept asking us if we could come. At exactly the same time, a friend said he would have time to help us part-time on the farm, so we could justify trying it out. We started at the end of September, and we immediately got positive results from it. The first day, chef Alex Johnston from Jamie Kennedy’s restaurants came and asked what we had. We told him we had potatoes, and he asked how we grow them. We told him we grow organically and use some biodynamic processes. So he took a 50lb. bag home. The following week he came back to our truck. He’s a very quiet guy and doesn’t talk much. But he was very excited and said, “Hey, we had these potatoes, and these potatoes are awesome. We’re going to buy your potatoes.” We didn’t discuss price. He just said these were the potatoes they were going to buy. That’s it. No discussion. They take quite a volume, so we gave them our volume discount and that was it. We have done business with them now since last September. I go to his restaurant every week for breakfast and coffee. We now supply four restaurants in Toronto, including Jamie Kennedy’s chain; we supply all his potatoes. We supply Crush, Cava, and a new restaurant. They’re not all top-end restaurants, but good ones that want to use the potatoes mostly for fries. We have enough sales to justify driving to Toronto on a weekly basis.
A better way of life I enjoy farming this way better. It’s more independent. In conventional farming, you rely so much on external input. You buy the fertilizer, you buy the chemicals, and the only thing you do is apply the stuff. You supply the land and they take your crop. I never really liked that system because it’s not truly independent. The farmer is the supplier of the soil, but someone else does the managing. It’s going more and more towards that. Don’t misunderstand me: there are good conventional farmers. This way is more independent because you rely on your own knowledge and your own labour, and you produce your own inputs by composting and animal production. That’s what I enjoy about organic farming. Also, you have a product that the market wants. I don’t have to go to market and ask, “What will you give me for that?” We are in a strong position: we produce for a market that appreciates our product, and we deal with customers that say, Thank you. In conventional farming, your customer doesn’t really need you. For them, they are so big worldwide, that one farmer doesn’t make any difference. With organic, you deal with smaller companies that need you, but you also need them. It’s a much healthier relationship between the customer and the producer. Local food will be way bigger than organic in the future. This is the real way to go. This is going to be the big thing and that will give anybody who produces good stuff on a local level a chance. Energy has to go that way, too. We should be putting a wind turbine up and one guy can supply our neighbourhood with power from it. The guy who has 1000 pigs should put a manure digester up and produce electricity or natural gas for his neighbourhood. The economic situation now will drive more people to that. Our so-called leaders talk about how important it is to keep up free trade, but that’s because they’re afraid free trade will collapse. That’s exactly what’s going to happen because it has no future. It gave us all these problems. Worldwide trade and all these products from China gave us the problems we have now. So the solution is to keep going the same way and expect different results? It doesn’t make sense.
Looking for a better future We as suppliers are not taken very seriously by our suppliers and customers anymore. As a farmer, it is very nice to work with people who appreciate what you are doing. We are not going to get rich quick, but we can survive and increase our wealth slowly. I’m pretty sure I can provide a future for someone down the road. Every person who lives on this Earth has a purpose, and some people are just born and naturally find their way to that purpose. Some people never find their purpose. I don’t know what my purpose is, but right now, what I could do to bring humanity forward is by supplying good quality food that makes you think straight. Good food, good thoughts; junk food, junk thoughts. It’s that simple.