Through innovation, the sky’s the limit

1 year ago
When the potato fields are in bloom in the French fry capital of the world, it looks like the Promised Land (Photo: Lane MacIntosh)

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2020

On this cold January morning, I’m cruising along the Trans-Canada Highway near Florenceville — the French fry capital of the world — thinking about how on warm, summer days when everything’s in bloom the hills, valleys and potato fields stretching out before me look like the Promised Land.

I’m also thinking about French fries. Of all the places in the world where potatoes are grown, why did Florenceville, New Brunswick become the French fry capital?

The answer, of course, is McCain Foods, the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen French fries and potato specialties. McCain Foods employs more than 20,000 people in 53 production facilities on six continents with global sales of CDN$9 billion. Since one in every three French fries in the world is a McCain fry, it’s not surprising that, for French fry lovers, Florenceville is the Promised Land.

But how did a Carleton County company that began in 1957 with 30 employees achieve such incredible success? A central answer to this question is that Harrison and Wallace McCain — visionaries as they were — based their company’s growth and development on science. They planted the seeds of their empire not only in the fertile soil of Carleton County where they grew up but also in New Brunswick’s rich traditions of research and innovation.

Enter Dr. Donald Young, who, having been born and raised on Fredericton’s Experimental Farm, gained an early appreciation of everything related to agriculture. He was born to be a scientist, more specifically, a plant scientist with a passion for the potato.

During his 46-year career, the late Dr. Young’s first love was potato variety development. When he was appointed project leader of the Agriculture Canada Potato Breeding Program in 1967, he established a team that pioneered the breeding of varieties for niche markets and French frying varieties.

Dr. Young was one of those visionary New Brunswick innovators who laboured away behind the scenes. Through his dedication and vision, he made a considerable contribution not only to the field of plant science but also to his province and country. If it were not for him and his team of researchers at the potato research centre in Fredericton, McCain Foods might not have achieved such runaway success with the French fry.

Here’s the back-story as it’s told in the book From The Ground Up: The First Fifty Years of McCain Foods by Daniel Stoffman.

“In the beginning, McCain Foods had no choice but to do the best it could with what farmers delivered to its plant. In the early 1960s, over farmers’ protests, it introduced the Russet Burbank to New Brunswick. But because of the shorter growing season, the potatoes were smaller than the ones grown in Idaho.

“Happily for McCain, Donald Young, a plant biologist and specialist in potato variety breeding at the Agriculture Canada Research Centre in Fredericton, was trying to develop a processing potato better suited for the short eastern Canadian growing season. In 1983, he succeeded. The new potato, called the Shepody, was a boon for McCain and has since become one of the three most grown varieties in North America. Because of McCain’s efforts, the Shepody is now grown around the world.

“‘Don made an enormous contribution to McCain Foods,’ says Wallace, ‘first through the Shepody variety, and later in a number of projects, from teaching and guiding our global team of agronomists for many years, to greatly improving yields in Manitoba and research in areas where we planned to build.’”

Imagine the number of jobs McCain Foods has created, not only here in New Brunswick, but around the world — jobs created as a result of innovative thinking by New Brunswickers. As with the investments in research that led to the creation of the perfect potato for making French fries, smart and responsible investments in New Brunswick’s research and innovation capacity will continue to pay off, especially when it comes to our biggest challenge, climate change.

As we move forward, we must take advantage of our rich culture of innovation and use it in a way that will make life better for all. And while climate change will require international cooperation, New Brunswick innovators can play an essential role in terms of research and innovation. At this moment, New Brunswick scientists, technicians and researchers are labouring away behind the scenes coming up with new ideas and trying to find solutions that will make life better for all of us.

It’s crucial that we not only listen to our innovators but also pay attention to what they’re doing and support them. If we do, there’s no telling how far we can go. The sky’s the limit.

Just ask McCain Foods.