Griffin brothers combine diverse talents in achieving spud success in Elmsdale

W.P. Griffin Inc.'s potato growing and packing business has grown into a state-of-the-art operation

Jim Day jday@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on April 6, 2013
John and Peter Griffin pose with some spuds at their packaging and wash plant in Elmsdale. The plant has the ability to package a wide variety of traditional potato products as well as a line of value-added specialty products.
Guardian photo by Jim Day

The contrasting work attire clearly highlights the diverse roles played by John Griffin and his brother Peter in a large family-run potato operation in Elmsdale in western P.E.I.

President and general manager of W.P. Griffin Inc., John, 48, is donning a neatly pressed dress shirt and dress pants on this particular workday.

Meanwhile Peter, 49, is ready to do battle as vice-president and operations manager of the successful 65-year-old business sporting blue jeans and a sweatshirt.

Not only are their duties miles apart, so too is the manner in which John and Peter entered full-time into the company that was founded by their father, Wilfred Griffin, in 1947 at the age of 19.

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Peter, who was “more interested in driving John Deere tractors than going to school’’, ended his academic education at 16 to work in the family business. Today, he can be found troubleshooting issues around the farm and packing plant as well as dealing with local farmers.

John, who graduated in 1988 from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax with a bachelor of commerce, is the financial guy running the business end of the operation.

Being complete opposites has made for a successful team. The spud siblings have spent their careers transforming the family’s potato growing and packing business into one of the most diversified, state-of-the-art operations in Canada.

“Pretty good working with John over the years,’’ said Peter. “We pretty much know what each other is doing.’’

The pair has constantly pushed the operation forward, never settling for status quo. In 1988, they tore down the packaging plant to put in place a far more modern facility, including one with a potato washer, something their main retail customer Sobeys had requested.

The brothers went on to make significant changes to the operation every five or seven years, including land purchases and equipment upgrades, such as the addition of the 12000 Volm bagger and the Hagan computerized sizer.

W.P. Griffin was one of the first potato packers on P.E.I. to implement a full forward and backward lot-traceability system that enables the company to track all products from the field to the plate. And those products are diverse, including Russets, Reds, White and Yellow Fleshed potatoes. W.P. Griffin also has a specialty line including barbecue ready and microwave ready potatoes.

The Griffins are particularly excited to bring the Annabelle potato variety to retailers and consumers in Eastern Canada, including availability to food service and restaurant clients.

For the retailer, the Annabelle offers the benefit of extended shelf life as it has proven to be highly resistant to greening. For chefs, notes John, the Annabelle is uniform in shape, thin skinned and easy to peel with a drier, firmer texture that lends itself to creative cooking and presentation methods.

“We really believe that Annabelle is a great potato,’’ said John.

John is also excited about, but reluctant at the moment to offer details on, a new partnership W.P. Griffin has entered into with a European company to market new varieties of potatoes to Canada. The endeavour will require the purchase of new machinery and other additional equipment.

In total, the business produces 3,400 acres of potatoes, grains, soybeans, hay and rye grass.

While that output puts W.P. Griffin among the top potato players in the province, John is quick to note the operation is still relatively small potatoes in comparison to many farms in Canada and the U.S. that are typically 20,000-acre businesses.

“We might seem big in Elmsdale or P.E.I. but we are just average in North America,’’ he said. “It’s quite a challenge in P.E.I. to compete.’’

Still, W.P. Griffin has earned a solid reputation in the potato industry, says Greg Donald, general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board.

“The Griffins as far as I’m concerned are a model potato operation,’’ said Donald. “They are definitely a leader.’’

Donald says the brothers, who nabbed the 2012 Ernst & Young Atlantic Entrepreneur of the Year in the business to consumer products and services category, are committed to advancing the potato industry as a whole.

W.P. Griffin is a family affair that extends beyond a couple of brothers. Brother-in-law, Troy Smallman, is farm manager. Sisters Eleanor Smallman and Barb Griffin-Lewis, both work part-time during planting and harvest seasons. First cousin Twilah McArthy has been bookkeeping for 30 years.

“We also have a lot of full-time employees that feel like family,’’ added Peter.

The company averages around 30 employees but increases to about 45 around peak operation. More than half of the staff has worked for the company for more than 20 years, some as long as 47.

“I hope that we are respected as and known throughout P.E.I. as a good, family operation,’’ said Peter.

While more than half of the potatoes produced by the company are sold to Cavendish Farms, W.P. Griffin continues to work to expand markets.

John keeps a keen eye on trade shows in the United States and Canada looking to see what innovative products are hitting the shelves. He is always interested in adding to the company’s line of value added specialty products.

John is also involved in trade missions.

Both Peter and John acknowledge that the company has had its share of highs and lows under their watch. They both realize they can’t stand still if they hope to keep moving forward and upward.

“Any time we launch new products or get a really big order is exciting days,’’ said John.

Spud standouts

Here are a few facts about Elmsdale-based W.P. Griffin Inc.:

• First company in North America to install an optical potato grader that uses video technology to grade and size potatoes.

• First company in Canada to market microwave-ready shrink-wrap potatoes.

• The only potato packaging operation in Canada licensed to pack under the Dole and Markon brands.

• Specializing in ready to cook and serve potato products.