PRESIDENT, DOWNEY FARMS AND BISTRO FRESH
POTATO FARMER, INNOVATOR, GET-OUTSIDE-ER
Fourth-generation farmer Trevor Downey has big dreams for the humble spud. They’ve taken him from farms in Peru, where he schooled himself on heirloom varieties, to the testing labs of Loblaw’s and other forward-looking retailers, where he’s working to change the perception and marketing of potatoes from a commodity to a richly varied, major consumer category.
It’s all consuming isn’t it, farming?
It has to be, just to keep it together.
How long have you been doing it?
I don’t think there’s a number. During my education years, I worked on the farm, potato packing. When I graduated from the University of Guelph, I went out west for a while, then I actually worked as an account executive for a commercial sign company. I really liked marketing, marketing and sales, I’ve always been an inventor, product development.
I worked a lot with creative people, designers, manufacturers, and that’s where the creativity around potatoes came in. So when I went back to the potato business, I realized that there was a really good opportunity to take a product, a mature product, and really market it.
The perception’s always been…
… that the potato’s a commodity. And my challenge for the last 15 years has been to take this commodity and put as much creativity behind it as I can. Look at different varieties that are available around the world, see what we can grow up in Canada and Ontario, and what’s been grown in the U.S., and really discover more about this.
People are so creative out here…
One thing that’s really interesting about the Headwaters is that there’s so much talent. I don’t have to go to Toronto and hire a design firm. I think a lot of creativity comes out of the authenticity of the area.
Tell me about your day.
I’ll drive through Mulmur on 17 side road, see a beautiful view, rolling hills, and then I’ll climb up and I’m in the Whitfield area, where it starts to plane out… then I cross the town line and I’m in the Melancthon township, where there’s nice plains of land that are the sources of agriculture. It’s a nice way to go to work every day.
And to live.
It’s a good, natural authenticity of living. My son plays hockey at a rink my grandfather helped build, I’m doing strengthening yoga at my brother’s place, he’s a strength and conditioning expert for hockey players, then a sauna, then I go to work.
That’s how I live my day, every day. There’s a good energy here, you can get it every day.
Right in your own area. Great places to hike, mountain bike in Dufferin Forest, great pubs and food like Mrs. Mitchell’s and Terra Nova Pub. I grew up as a kid right there, playing in the Pine River. Great place to see friends, or just gather your thoughts alone.
What do you tell your city friends?
You need some space. You need to look at a new picture. Nature on its own, go listen to it. Go listen to a bird. See a coyote and gather your thoughts. Start tapping into the authenticity of the area.
If a buddy came up and you wanted to sell him on Headwaters, where would you take him?
I’d jump in the pickup truck, head throughout the top of 17, go through the back country and the side roads, and take him for a beer at the Terra Nova Pub. He’d be sold. All my friends who come up from the city, they all go, “Man, I feel so relaxed.” They’re yawning!
Everyone has a favourite spot here.
I have a lookout, just off of 100-acre farm, up in the bush. It belonged to my uncle. I’ve got the Pine River, a couple of ponds, and a point from where I can see from the tip of Melancthon and all over Mulmur. I can see the Shelburne water tower, I can even see Hockley.
Headwaters people: what’s the common trait?
You can drop the ego at the door when you get here. You don’t need to sell yourself, just communicate your thoughts. Sure, you have to stay sharp, stay on top of your business, but there’s a great balance of life, that’s what this area gives you.
I love the hand waves wherever you drive.
We have one finger waves, two finger waves, good old “good days”, all kinds. I think everybody gets a kick out of getting a wave.
Back to potatoes: what’s next in their evolution?
It’s exciting to take the humble spud, and do planning sessions, taste tests with Loblaws and President’s Choice. I went to them with a vision: See the cheese section in your stores, all the varieties, its own destination? We’re trying to make potatoes like that cheese section.
We’re even innovating the packaging. I went into Shoppers Drug Mart with our new stand-up pouch, very new for the category, and I said here, put this beside your Eternity cologne!
Eau de Spud. Love it.
See what Trevor’s cooking up at bistrofreshpotato.com