Rebecca MacSwain takes on essential role in PEI potato industry

You’d be hard pressed to find an Island potato farmer who disagrees: having good quality seed is the foundation of a good crop.

This makes Rebecca MacSwain, the PEI potato board’s new seed specialist, an essential player in the industry which annually contributes over $1 billion to the Island’s economy.

“It’s huge,” said farmer Alex Docherty about the importance of the role. Mr Docherty’s family has grown hundreds of acres of seed and commercial potato crops for decades in Elmwood and he is happy to see someone from the next generation with a keen interest in agriculture fill the position.

Ms MacSwain spent the better part of six months training for into the role with the board’s now semi-retired seed specialist Mary-Kay Sonier of Hunter River.

“That time was invaluable,” Ms MacSwain said. “She just has a huge wealth of institutional knowledge.”

Ms Sonier supported Island seed growers in the role for three decades.

The job has involved supporting high quality local seed production informed by the latest industry trends and scientific advancements.

It has also involved representing Island seed farmers in local, national and international conversations surrounding pest and disease management and regulations.

She worked with farmers to find ways to tackle issues like a spike in disease in the early ‘90s then again in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

Since 2021, she has been heavily involved, along with other members of the board, in identifying and pushing forward keep sensible regulations and policies in response to detection of potato wart on the Island. The detection initially resulted in a complete ban on moving potatoes off-Island, which devastated local farmers in the fall of 2021.

Since then, various risk mitigation and monitoring measures have been implemented which have allowed PEI table stock and processing potato exports to resume across Canada, the US and to off-shore markets. But moving PEI seed potato across Canada and into the US is still restricted.

Looking toward eventual retirement, but dedicated to local growers, Ms Sonier has agreed to continue part-time work focusing on the potato wart file.

She will keep participating in national and local committees to provide PEI input as the Draft National Response Plan for Potato Wart is set to be released for public consultation this spring.

“We want regulations that control the pest, but that are practical for growers to implement,” she said. She hopes to see regulations based on real rather than perceived risk that allow PEI spuds and seed potatoes to be moved and sold safely across Canada in the future.

Ms MacSwain said Ms Sonier’s legacy sets a high bar, but she is hopeful to rise to the challenge considering Ms Sonier started out working for the potato board not unlike Ms MacSwain: early in her career, shortly after completing a university degree in agriculture.

Ms MacSwain sees the job as an opportunity for continual learning and to do what she has worked toward since high school.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” Ms MacSwain said looking back to her time growing up on A.S. MacSwain & Sons potato farm in Morell. Her father Don MacSwain alongside her grandfather Sterling and her uncle David ran the operation which, at its peak, spanned 725 acres. “I knew I just wanted to work with farmers and help farmers in some capacity.”

Ms MacSwain’s mother, Lynda Ramsay, also worked in the provincial Department of Agriculture.

In high school Ms MacSwain began to take a persistent interest in the many individuals who would drop into the family farm on business, whether it was a salesperson, an agronomist or government personnel.

“I would often find an opportunity to corner them and ask questions about their careers and involvement in the agriculture industry,” she said.

This helped inform her decision to pursue a Bachelor in Agriculture Science with a major in Agriculture Business through Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture located in Truro, NS (formerly known as the Nova Scotia Agriculture College).

Through university and summer work terms, she gained experience supporting research for the PEI department of agriculture, crop scouting for Cavendish Agri Services and then moved into a sales support position.

After graduating in 2018, she gained more experience in sales for Cavendish absorbing all the knowledge she could and constantly taking on more responsibility before transitioning to work for Veseys Seeds. At Veseys she first worked as the Commercial Sales & Research Trials Supervisor where she was involved in some seed trial work, then as Commercial Sales Manager.

Along the way she also worked to earn Certified Crop Advisor and Professional Agrologist designations.

Now one of her major responsibilities is managing the Potato Board’s Fox Island Elite Seed Farm.

Forty per cent of the Island’s seed potato can be traced back to Fox Island which specializes in high quality seed production.

The farm produces seed at its first and purest stages which farmers can then use to reproduce and multiply. It also contributes to ensuring growers have a stable local source of seed.

Working directly with growers to support their own seed production endeavours will be another big part of the job. Ms Sonier noted she found this part to be one of the most enjoyable aspects. “It’s always been a nice part of the job to be on the farms and working with the growers and looking at new varieties and new production techniques and things like that,” she said.

“It’s important for the industry to be retaining their seed growers,” she said, noting while there may only be a dozen farmers whose sole focus is seed on PEI, there are likely over 100 farmers growing seed in some capacity. Some grow to sell a portion and use the rest to sow their own commercial potato crops, others just grow enough to support their own commercial crop or a portion of it.

As the industry evolves and fewer young farmers are taking over the family business she doesn’t want local expertise and know-how to dwindle.

While Ms MacSwain sometimes still questions how she will ever fill Ms Sonier’s longstanding and respected legacy in the position, she is dedicated to the work and hopes, in time, she will make the position her own and build a legacy to be proud of.

Along the way, she will keep writing lists of questions to ask Ms Sonier when she drops into the potato board’s office.

Ms MacSwain extends appreciation for all the guidance and warm welcomes farmers and all those she has been working with so far have offered.

Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic