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Leading industry in change key to success

“Our father (Wilfred P. Griffin) started here in 1947 with Ron McKenna and by 1958 he took over the whole business,” John Griffin explains about the start of the company he and his brother Peter now run. “Dad incorporated in 1969.”

W.P. Griffin Inc. started out as a potato grading, packing and shipping business on the rail line in Elmsdale. “Shortly after starting, Dad grew potatoes on the side,” says John, noting that the family owned business has continued to expand and diversify its operations throughout its history. John serves as the company’s general manager while Peter is operations manager.

Operating under three separate divisions – Farming Operations, Packaging Warehouse, and Beef Production – W.P. Griffin Inc. annually grows approximately 1,100 acres of potato, 1,000 acres of grains and 600 acres of hay. They also finish 300-400 beef cattle and continue to expand operations with grading, packaging and shipping potatoes.

Beef production fits well with the potato operations and other crops, John says, noting that the culled potatoes are fed to the cattle along with the grains, while the straw is used for bedding. In turn, he continues, “manure is good to go back on the land.”

W.P. Griffin has always purchased potatoes from other growers and marketed them under the company’s labels – Griffin Brand, Bud the Spud and Tall Pines. In addition, Griffins is the sole potato packer in Canada registered to use the Dole brand. The company packs and ships between 20 million and 30 million pounds of potatoes annually. Since the late 1960s, Sobey’s Inc. has been the company’s largest customer, with product shipped to Toronto, Montreal and Boston as well.

Abreast of industrial trends, in 1988 the company undertook a major expansion at the Elmsdale plant to facilitate washing table potatoes. The trend toward washed potatoes was just in its infancy, which in the years that followed proved W.P. Griffin to be among the industry’s trendsetters.

That same year, the Griffins began sizing potatoes for uniformity and packing them in cardboard boxes for restaurants. For example, an 80-count designation would mean the box contains 50 pounds of 10-ounce potatoes.

"In 1996 we did another upgrade,” explains John. The company purchased computerized equipment so that the grading, sizing and packaging operations would run more efficiently.

Continuing in their pursuit to improve, in 2000 the Griffi ns upgraded their bagging operation to facilitate five-pound plastic bags to again keep pace with an emerging trend. “Over the last several years,” John explains, “the industry standard has changed from 10-pound paper bags to fi ve-pound poly(urethane). Now it’s a larger part of what we do.” Tall Pines is the original brand for unwashed potatoes; Bud the Spud brand emerged to market washed potatoes; and Griffin Brand, the newest, came about to market premium quality potatoes in plastic bags.

Other emerging trends that are driving changes at W.P. Griffin Inc. include the popularity of baked potatoes as a fastfood restaurant item, a decline in demand for potatoes due to the popularity of the high-protein/low carbohydrate Atkins diet; and the North America-wide glut of potatoes. The Griffins’ response: A premium packaged potato.

Working with three other potato packers and the P.E.I. Food Trust, a new potato product entered the Ontario market in November – Fresh Obsessions. Hand-select premium potatoes are packaged four to a tray, or individually in microwave oven-ready shrink-wrap. These fetch a premium price at select A&P Stores in Ontario. The Fresh Obsessions campaign also includes displays of various types of potatoes in atmosphere-controlled glass bins, promoted by their best-suited cooking methods. Fresh Obsession potatoes are produced by a half-dozen growers who meet the rigid standards.

Another direction the industry is headed requires that all bagged product can be traced back through lot numbers imprinted on the packages. W.P. Griffin is on the forefront of that change, having already implemented an HACCP program that not only identifi es the packaging lot number, but also the field from which the contents were harvested.

As the various agricultural sectors W.P. Griffin is involved with continue to change according to consumer demands, it’s a sure bet John and Peter have their fingers on the pulse and will lead the industry in meeting changes. To achieve their goals, the Griffins employ between 15 and 50 people throughout their operations.

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