How the Hardbite makers repurpose imperfect potatoes

PROLIFIC POTATOES | Pete Schouten farms produce, makes Hardbite vegetable chips and recovers food waste at Fraser Valley Biogas

From his chip factory to his biogas plant, Pete Schouten finds the best use for every potato

When Pete Schouten and his partners bought a chip factory in Maple Ridge from a local chef six years ago, he thought it would be a good way to use the second-grade potatoes he harvested from his fields. It didn’t turn out that way. “We’re farmers; that’s where we come from,” says Schouten, 45, speaking over the industrial harmonies of the conveyor belts, deep fryers and seasoning drums in the Hardbite chip manufacturing plant. “When I eat a potato chip, I want to taste the potato.”

That means a thicker-cut chip fried at a lower temperature, and that requires a perfectly sized potato with the perfect blend of sugar and starch. Schouten found a better way to make chips, too, expanding from potatoes to parsnips, beets and carrots; today his customers include retail giants such as Save-On Foods, Loblaws, Whole Foods and Costco. But now he’s working on finding a better way to use his seconds—the potatoes, parsnips or beets that don’t make the cut for his chips. His company, Heppell’s, owns several hundred acres and leases 1,000 more, cultivating 36 fields in Surrey, Cloverdale, Abbotsford and Chilliwack. From that agricultural base, he and his partners have expanded in several directions, including Naturally Homegrown Foods, which makes
Hardbite chips, and Fraser Valley Biogas. His goal: recover all food waste from his farming and processing operations and put it to a better use, for both financial and environmental reasons.

A potato grown in one of Schouten’s fields can follow one of many paths. After being harvested, washed and dried, it goes through a computerized “optical sorter,” which watches potatoes travelling on a conveyor, finds green spots or cracks or bits of embedded clay, and kicks out the sub-par potato. Those with one imperfection can be sold as seconds. BC Fresh, which markets and distributes Heppell’s produce, sells a brand of less-perfect fruit and vegetables called Farmer’s Keepers. Several large retailers—Loblaws and one of B.C.’s largest wholesalers, Discovery Organics—now sell second-grade produce (also called “ugly”) at a cheaper price, which Schouten says has greatly reduced the amount of food wasted at the farm level.

The potatoes with more than one imperfection, however, follow a different path. Ten years ago, the best use Schouten could find for unsaleable vegetables was cattle feed. Now they get sent to Enterra Feed Corporation, a Vancouver-based company that has its own environmental mission. Striving to keep nutrients from organic waste in the food system, Enterra uses preconsumer food waste (stale unsold bread or unmarketable potatoes) to feed black soldier fly larvae, which are then harvested and processed into fish or chicken feed. And to add another loop to the food chain, the excess waste from Enterra gets sent to Schouten’s Fraser Valley Biogas—where two streams of waste are combined: cattle, chicken and pig manures; and food unfit for consumption (expired cream, spoiled merlot or fried oil from the chip factory). The digesters churn out two products: a methane gas (bought by FortisBC) and a fertilizer, which returns nutrients to farm fields.

Schouten’s farming philosophy—that “there is always a better way”—took root when he was 13 years old. He visited seven farms near his Surrey home until he found a farmer who agreed to give him a job. That farmer, Ron Heppell, ran the farm with his brother Dave, who taught Schouten to constantly question the process. Today Schouten co-owns that farm with Ron’s son, Wes—and the two men continue to challenge the status quo. “We don’t want anything going off the farm that’s not at its highest, best use,” Schouten says. “Our end goal is no waste, but we’re improving on that all the time.”