WHO: Juli & Bob Poracki
WHAT: Sweet Potatoes
In recent years Norfolk County has been racking up an impressive number of stories of farmers who have successfully transitioned from growing tobacco into other crops. Bob and Juli Proracki of Round Plains Plantation have one of the best such stories. They grow sweet potatoes – once something of a rarity here. These days, people are aware of the powerful nutrition packed into these delicious, versatile tubers, and Norfolk is Canada’s largest producer. The Prorackis grow theirs without the aid of any chemicals, and supply them directly to their customers – both raw, and processed into mouth-watering prepared foods.
They have an interesting, though in some ways typical, Norfolk history. Bob’s paternal grandparents, Tony and Tekla, emigrated from the Ukraine to Canada in 1908, settling initially in Manitoba. Tekla’s brother was already settled with his family in Round Plains and the Prorackis came to join them. For half a decade the family of five lived with their relatives, making for a crowded household of ten. It was not until 1923 that Tony Proracki was able to buy his own farm and begin growing tobacco. In time he also acquired the property across the road where Juli and Bob now live. The core of their pretty house, where Bob grew up and which has since been added onto, is over one-hundred years old.
Juli grew up in Simcoe and her family was also involved in the tobacco-growing industry. Her father, Milton Page, was the accountant for the experimental farm located in Harrow, Ontario, but he was persuaded to relocate to Simcoe and work for the Lake Erie Tobacco Company. Eventually, he owned three tobacco farms here, as well as establishing a Tastee Freeze outlet.
Bob’s parents, Jake and Olga, took over the Proracki farm in the 1950’s and carried on growing tobacco. “They encouraged education for their children”, Bob says, and their four daughters were trained in various professions. Bob himself graduated from The University of Western Ontario in London, majoring in Latin with a minor in Psychology. He became a high school teacher after graduation, teaching Phys. Ed. and Drivers’ Ed.
Bob and Juli met while he was at university. She worked for London Life at the time and they fondly remember how she used to stay at the office after hours to type his papers. They married after Bob completed second year. Bob had played fast-pitch softball from the time he was in his teens. He continued to play during and after university (for a total of forty-four years altogether) and the young couple sometimes travelled to the North for tournaments. They were struck by the friendliness of the people they met, saying it put them in mind of the close-knit Norfolk communities where they had grown up. So when it came time for Bob to take up his first teaching post, it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to choose to go all he way north to Kapuskasing. Juli says, “We were newlyweds, full of a spirit of adventure”. Bob adds that it didn’t hurt that teaching positions in the north paid $1000.00 a year more.
While they were in Kapuskasing Juli worked for a local lab and did “lots of volunteer work”. However, Bob became ill in the fall of 1976. While on a medical leave of absence he returned to his family’s Norfolk farm to recuperate. He and his young family never left, but instead he took over from his father. He and Juli purchased the farm in 1979, the family property across the road in 1983.
Juli meanwhile, in addition to helping on the farm, was working full-time and raising four sons. The boys, who grew up even taller than their dad and equally athletic, now range in age from 41 down to 31. The eldest son Jamie lives just across the lane from Juli and Bob. He and his wife Sonja have two children, Alexandra,11, and Jakob, who is 7 years of age. Jamie works for Toyota in Cambridge. Rob, a mobility technician, lives in B.C. with his wife Joanna and their children, Oscar, 2 and Mara, who is almost 4. Michael is an artist based in Toronto and very much involved in the art scene – film, music, promotion, etc. Their fourth son Taryn is a teacher. He and his fiancé Kathryn live in New Zealand. Bob and Juli stress the importance of their close, supportive family. They proudly say, “All of our children and their partners have helped us (with the work of the farm and markets) at some time”, and they clearly appreciate it.
Juli spent four years working in the Nursing Administration Office at Brantford General Hospital. Her later career included eleven years as a fundraiser in the Development Office of Norfolk General Hospital, followed by nine years spent as Office Manager for St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic parishes in Simcoe. She went back to school and obtained a certificate in Non-Profit and Voluntary Sector Management at Western. By then she had university-aged sons of her own, who sometimes helped her with homework assignments.
While Bob and Juli were still growing tobacco they had some very bad luck. The Woodstock tornado of 1971 took out two tobacco kilns; immediately afterward they had to contend with blue mould; and the list goes on. By the 1980’s it was already clear the government intended to start phasing out the extensive farming of tobacco. In 2001, changes were mandated to tobacco kilns that would have cost the Proracki’s $100,000.00 to address. That was the proverbial last straw, and forced them into making a decision about their future.
The sweet potato had something of a history in Norfolk County. Curemen, who came up here over the years from Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to lend their expertise to the tobacco industry grew them, probably mainly for their own consumption. In 1937 a local veterinarian ventured into growing them commercially at Atherton, near Delhi. The crop from his thirty acres was all shipped by boxcar to New York City, most likely for lack of a local market.
As noted above, in the 1980’s, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food began actively encouraging farmers to phase out of tobacco and into alternative crops. It was in 1985, that Michael Columbus at OMAFRA’s local agricultural research station began promoting the sweet potato as one such alternative. Following his advice, the Prorackis were persuaded to make the switch. They grow mainly sweet potatoes now, along with butternut squash, and still rely on the staff at the research station to provide help with issues that arise. They belong to the North American Sweet Potato Growers’ Association, which meets every January. Next year will be the 51st annual such meeting. As members, they benefit from the support and help provided by researchers and other growers.
Although the Prorackis have not gone through the certification process, they grow organically and fully support the principles. Their soil has been tested and has been found to contain no pesticide residues. They fertilize with their own compost, supplemented by composted turkey manure containing dolomitic lime.
Bob and Juli have grown as many as seventy-five acres, but now confine themselves to a maximum of fifteen. As of this year they have eight acres in production, enough to supply their own needs plus those of their market customers. Of the 4500 varieties of sweet potato available world-wide, they grow six, allowing them and their customers a good selection of textures and colours – from palest yellow to beet red. They point out that, as a tropical plant, sweet potatoes have particular needs. They must cure after harvesting at 85 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 % humidity in order to toughen the skin so they will keep. Sweet potatoes do not like to be stored at less than 58 degrees.
Bob and Juli no longer wholesale their crops, having learned they prefer direct contact with the folks who buy their product, answering any questions they may have about nutritional values, preparation, storage, etc. They consider such consumer education a priority. With the help of their son Michael they’ve set up a website (www.ontariosweetpotato.com) and are on Facebook. Those vehicles allow them to reach even more people, even though Bob reckons they have already dealt face-to-face with a quarter of a million people at farmers’ markets in the Toronto area, extolling the virtues of both sweet potatoes and Norfolk County.
Their endeavours have drawn a lot of attention, and articles about them have appeared in various publications in the last few years. Round Plains Plantation has been profiled in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the Hamilton Spectator and Brantford Expositor. There was an article about them published a couple of years back in Edible Toronto magazine, and most recently, they were highlighted in a supplement to The Simcoe Times-Reformer. Bob has appeared on TV’s Breakfast Television.
For the Prorackis, direct participation in farmers’ markets makes for a busy week. On Tuesdays, Round Plains is at The Hospital for Sick Children and East York General in Toronto. Wednesdays they’re at Ancaster and Thursdays, Dundas. On Saturdays Juli goes to the market in Georgetown, and year round Bob – after delivering Round Plains product to the St. Lawrence Market and Wychwood Barns – goes to the Brickworks. Starting Mondays in November they will be at Sorauren Farmers Market in the Parkdale area of Toronto. They supply the Rowe Farms stores and 4-U Live Foods in Kensington Market, also in Toronto. Thanks to Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarino of the One Hundred Kilometer Foods network, Toronto chefs and restaurants are supplied with Round Plains’ sweet potatoes and squash. Slips from their plants go to farmers in Norfolk and are shipped all over Canada.
A very important part of the Round Plains Plantation operation is their bakery, which is located in part of the old barn. Two kitchens – one for the regular baking, one which is gluten-free – turn out a variety of goodies too numerous to mention, all containing sweet potato. The wide selection available includes breads (sweet rye, cinnamon loaf, scones, etc.), several kinds of muffins and cookies, tarts, latkes, waffles and English muffins. From here also come scrumptious soup, salads and canapé spreads. Round Plains Bakery features sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan products. Many of their baked goods are made with spelt flour obtained from nearby Brant Flour Mill on Oakland Pond. Haldimand-Norfolk schools are provided with nutritious raw sweet potato sticks and spelt cookies for their healthy snacks program. In the making of their products, Juli says, “We source as many ingredients as we can locally.”
All the production of Round Plains takes place with relatively few employees. Bob does the cultivation and grading of the sweet potatoes and squash himself, and handles the deliveries and most of the markets. Juli does the Georgetown Market. (She used to do more of them but broke her ankle last year, making standing for long periods difficult.) She also devotes much time and labour to the bakery. Sweet potatoes and squash are planted in a day, with eight people on the planter. At harvest time, six are employed on the digger. The bakery is in operation every day in the summer time, part of the week the rest of the year. Here there are five part-time helpers, which include Juli and a master baker who makes all their breads. Since even Bob and Juli can’t be two places at once, five employees help staff the markets.
Bob and Juli readily acknowledge that their dedicated staff members have played a large part in their success. Among them are Vicky and Cindy, who work in the bakery, and Heidi and Dave, who help with the markets. They appreciate the competence and reliability of all those who work for them and have helped them grow their business.
The Prorackis are justly proud of their successful transition from growing an unhealthy product (tobacco) to one that’s good for people. They have risen to the challenge of “growing healthy, nutritious food without chemicals”, and are able to farm sustainably, using much of the waste from their operation for compost or providing it to local farmers to nourish their livestock. Not least, they’ve managed to educate more than their fair share of consumers – about the advantages of eating locally and in season, about the special health benefits of the sweet potato, and about all the good things that come from Norfolk County.
This success hasn’t come without its challenges, however. Wind, rain, drought, insects, paperwork – they contend with the same things other farmers do. But the Prorackis have the added challenges of their direct-to-consumer approach. Having a presence at so many markets involves, first and foremost, “hard work” and long hours. All the setting up and taking down “gets harder every year”, and in some communities support for the concept of farmers’ markets is lacking. On top of everything there’s the increasing cost of transportation.
What makes it all worth it is an unshaken belief in what they’re doing. They appear to have found their particular niche and their joy in what they’re doing is contagious. Above all, they say, they enjoy interacting with the public and providing information to them. Julie says what keeps them going is when customers say, “Thank you for being here, and thank you for what you’re doing for us”.
Bob’s vision for the future of agriculture in Norfolk County, and overall, is that “It’s good for agriculture in general, not so good for family farms” which, as he sees it, will lose out in the competition with large agri-business. Juli is optimistic as long as the current interest in things “green” – in farmers’ markets and local, seasonal eating – is not just trendy, but an overall commitment to sustainability which continues to grow.
The Prorackis believe that the government has a vital role to play in deciding on that future. Bob says, “Farmers should have a higher profile. We produce the food that people eat”, so there should be even more emphasis than at present on the advantages of eating local food in the season in which it’s grown. Government agencies can “educate consumers about what goes into their mouths and the value of good nutrition”. Juli agrees. She is encouraged by some of the current initiatives and hopes the government continues to build on them. She says “They have an important role to play in heightening consumer awareness”. Locally, she appreciates the help she and her staff have had from the county Health Unit in learning safe food-handling techniques, and both appreciate Norfolk County’s particular emphasis on promoting its agricultural sector.
In summary, this handsome, charming, hard-working couple are effective ambassadors for both the nutritionally not-so-humble sweet potato and their beloved Norfolk County. They make the promotion of Norfolk their personal mission and a map of the county is prominently displayed at each one of their market venues. Tobacco was once the pride of this area. While it’s still a significant crop, farmers like Bob and Juli Proracki are proud to tell everyone they meet that there’s a lot more going on here.