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MacKellar Farms Pioneers Edamame Production in Canada

March 05 Ashley Cattell

MacKellar Farms has a history.

The MacKellar family formed a connection with the land, which has been passed down through generations, each dedicated to farming field crops - from corn, to wheat, to soybeans.

Today, Jacob MacKellar, 26 year old agriculturalist, alongside his brother, are the 3rd generation to farm the family’s land in Alvinston, Ontario. Jacob’s entrepreneurial drive and passion for growing food has has earned him the title of Ontario’s ‘modern day farmer’ as he carves out the next chapter in MacKellar Farms’ story.

We're honored that Jacob took the time to sit down and chat with us to share just that.

It began with an innovative idea, pioneered in Canadian soil; driven by passion though not without challenges, it's achieved great success. This is a story worth knowing.

“The land has been in the family since the mid 1800s ” said Jacob. “Growing up on our family farm in Alvinston, Ontario, I always knew I wanted to farm, there was no question in my mind. I had no drive to pursue another career, it has always been farming”.

Aerial Shot of MacKellar Farm from 1970 resized

After studying Agricultural Production and Business at Olds College, a stone’s throw from the Rocky Mountains, Jacob decided to step outside the boundaries of traditional farming.

“I knew I wanted to diversify from growing common field crops, and look at what consumers really wanted.”

This is when he set his sights on edamame - young soybeans, grown and harvested as vegetables during the summer season. Available in their bright green pod (traditional) and shelled, edamame is traditionally a popular snack in Asian cultures, and becoming increasing popular choice in your everyday supermarket.

McKellar_Farm_Shoot-2372 - Edamame

“Around 2008, no one, it seemed was farming edamame at the time in Canada,” said Jacob.

Customers shopping for edamame, would find it in the frozen section at the grocery store; a quick glance at the product’s packaging would reveal it was likely grown in China. Through consumer research, Jacob found, shoppers who purchased edamame also cared about supporting local businesses and purchased other locally grown and locally made products.

“I saw an opportunity to grow a new crop that consumers wanted, that could be grown at home here in Canada,” said Jacob.

McKellar_Farm_Shoot-2725 - Edamame Crop

In 2010 Jacob produced his first crop. The first few years presented challenges as the MacKellars experimented with the best method to grow edamame.

“Our goal was first to match the quality of the existing edamame in the market, and then exceed it,” Jacob explained.

Jacob, spoke light heartedly as he talked about the difficulties they faced in the first few years, describing the challenges as fun.

“Although China has a more tropical climate, Southern Ontario is nice because of its high latitude which offers cooler temperatures that help with better taste and less insect pressure, our area its quite well suited for growing edamame,” Jacob explained.

With climate aside, the bigger challenge lay in the fact that they were starting from the ground up. Unlike other Canadian field crops there were no government publications or research on how to grow edamame in Canada; and no crop insurance to protect against severe weather and other damaging events which could wipe out the year’s harvest.

“There is no manual on how to produce, harvest and freeze edamame. We found the key step was to focus on our customers and provide a finished product of excellent quality.”

McKellar_Farm_Shoot-2545 - Jacob MacKellar

Today Jacob farms alongside his older brother (who has three young sons, the future ‘MacKellar’ farmers – in training), his parents, and his grandparents, who though mostly retired like to stay involved and help out when they can. Together they plant 300 acres of edamame in intervals throughout May and June, with the harvesting season following soon after in August. Within 6-8 hours of harvesting the edamame it is Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) to maximize its tender flavour and preserve its freshness.

“The fresh season is incredibly short (August, September), offering frozen is the optimal way to provide edamame year round,” Jacob explained. “When looking at edamame it should be bright green with a good thick pod, and two to three beans in each. Flavour is very important to us. Because there is only 6-8 hours between harvest and freezing, our edamame has incredible flavour. My favourite way to eat edamame, is to boil or steam them for 2 minutes to bring out its, subtle savoury favour, if you’d like you can add a touch of salt (and butter), but I enjoy it with nothing at all.”

McKellar_Farm_Shoot-2573 - Finn, good listener, lover of edamame, wont eat til we say ok

"Finn is our golden retriever, he's a good listener and a lover of edamame too. We can leave an edamame pod (or a piece of bacon) on his nose and he wont move or eat it until we say okay."

MacKellar Farms started out selling their edamame in a few small natural health food stores in Toronto.

“They have been great advocates for local food business like us” said Jacob.

After selling in their home province of Ontario, they’ve since expanded into 300 medium chain grocery stores from Quebec, West to British Columbia. With hard work and drive, Jacob & the MacKellar Family have proven that it is possible to connect with their customers, identify their needs and provide food grown close to home. They’re truly pioneering the way with edamame production in Canada.

McKellar_Farm_Shoot-2563 - Jacob MacKellar and Finn

For great ideas on how to enjoy edamame, and to find MacKellar Farms Edamame at a store near you visit: mackellarfarms.ca

Connect with MacKellar Farms on Facebook and Twitter @MacKellarFarms

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