A Tribute to Sam Squire: “Mr Potato”

Sam Squire.jpgSam’s career was punctuated by many achievements that raised up the Ontario potato sector. The impact of his work is impossible to measure unless you talk to all the people he supported with his field work, wise counsel and diligence to detail.  


As a University of Guelph graduate in 1965, Sam made an early mark by spotting the potential of a yellow-fleshed potato developed by Gary Johnston. His genius was to get this variety registered by the National Potato Committee in Ottawa. At the time, no one realized that the Yukon Gold potato would become a household name for its smooth, eye-free skin but just as importantly, its unique, tasty flesh.


The Yukon Gold potato was the first Canadian-bred potato variety to be promoted, packaged and marketed with its name right on the pack. Without doubt, its versatility for boiling, baking, frying, grilling, pan frying and roasting, is what revolutionized the potato aisle at North American grocery stores.

In 1977, Sam became the provincial potato specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. For the next 20 years, he would put an indelible stamp on the potato sector. He established a seed potato program in Ontario and was pivotal in spurring the formation of the Ontario Seed Potato Growers’ Association in 1978.  A few years later, in 1985, the Seed Potato Upgrading and Distribution (SPUD) unit was built at government facilities in New Liskeard. Here, the staff holds  virus- and pathogen-free, tissue-cultured plants of all the varieties grown in Ontario, multiplying them for basic seed potato production by elite growers in the north of the province. Later generations of potatoes are stewarded by growers in isolated parts of central Ontario. Sam was truly a visionary in developing an excellent Ontario seed potato program.


To nudge the program along, Sam spent many summer days checking all the early-generation seed fields with the growers. By example, he taught how to spot diseased plants and how to rogue. The testimonies of many farmers are shared here.


Rick and Jane Bailey: “Sam not only convinced us to become seed potato growers with Yukon Gold becoming one of our major varieties, but he worked along side us in making our seed crop free of all viruses and diseases through careful roguing at the right times during the growing  season.”


Duane Holm: “When I became a seed grower I thought Sam’s job was to help Ontario seed growers. It was later that I came to learn that he was only helping me because of his kind nature and passion for potatoes.”


Glen Squirrell: “Sam was a unique personality with very high standards teaching and demanding excellence in how the seed potato crop was grown. He taught my daughter Julie, by example, walking the seed potatoes together.“


Sam’s passion led him to select potatoes from many farms for competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. His secret was to polish them with velvet cloth at his personal residence, such was his pride. Many ribbons hang in children’s bedrooms thanks to Sam’s generous way of promoting Ontario potatoes. Andy VanderZaag, for one, never forgot winning the biggest potato in Canada.


Dr Eugenia Banks, who worked with Sam for many years and later succeeded him as the Ontario potato specialist, recalls that in the late 1980s, he was the first potato researcher to demonstrate that air pollution was an environmental problem affecting potatoes in Ontario. Although this news was received skeptically by growers, Sam was able to prove his observation with scientific evidence.


Many growers recall the days of the 500-bushel clubs in South Simcoe and Dufferin counties. Those events featured potato prizes for various yield categories and quality in different farmers’ fields. Sam was integral to the competition’s success, collecting the data for analysis and declaring the winners.


Candy Keith, the current manager of the SPUD unit, shares that his writing style was infused with both humour and lively imagery. The clear visual image of his message ensured that it was read when received.


Ontario potato growers have been so profoundly impacted by the legacy of Sam Squire, that he is fondly remembered as “Mr Potato.” Thank you, Sam.


Prepared by Peter VanderZaag with edits and photo by Karen Davidson.