Growing Spuds: High-Risk, High-Reward
Despite a tough start with a new crop, one farm family held on and found success.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Will Stillman
In the first three years of raising what was then Southern Alberta’s hot new crop, John Vossebelt almost lost the farm.
“When we started in 2000, we were partly froze out,” says John, noting an early frost that destroyed a large portion of his first harvest. While the next year provided a good yield, “2002 froze us out again.
“When you just start in this business [making] the big investments, you cannot have a bad year,” continues John. “But we had two.”
The new crop was potatoes and by the time he made the decision to raise them, John was no rookie producer. He had been farming since the late ’60s, when he immigrated at age 18 to Alberta from the Netherlands. Having remained in the area near Lethbridge, he worked with other farms until 1975, when he started his own operation, primarily raising sugar beets and grains near the community of Chin. Yet, in potatoes, he and many other area farmers saw a new, promising opportunity.
In the latter part of the 1990s, new and existing potato processors had either built new plants, expanded or made announcements to do so. Southern Alberta would soon see processing capacity expand fivefold to 500,000 tons per year. The markets were cooperating. John was doing his part. Only the weather didn’t get the memo.
“We’d gotten the equipment, prepared the land and ourselves by learning about growing [potatoes],” John says in his deep baritone, accented with hints of his native Dutch. “We knew potatoes would be a high-risk crop, but we knew in our gut we could be successful.”
It ended up being more gut-wrenching, at least in the beginning. “If it were not for our suppliers that had faith in us and carried us for another year, we would not be in business now.”
A decade and a half later, with the help of his wife, Ann, their five children and, says John, “many others,” the Vossebelt patriarch has built a successful operation named Chin Coulee Spud Farms. Using both rented acreage and land the family owns, John, who now shares management with his two sons, Delbert and Dwayne, farms some 2,500 acres near the Old Man River, a meandering waterway flanked in many areas by clay cliffs off of which many First Nations ingenious hunters would chase buffalo.
Fed largely by snowmelt, the river is, according to Delbert, one of the secrets to the success of regional farms, most of which are irrigated. “What’s key for us is our water quality,” says the oldest of John’s two sons. “We have access to good, quality irrigation from mountain streams.”
As a result, “potatoes that we grow here are high-quality spuds,” he continues, explaining “that’s a reason why these french fry plants are here in Alberta. There are three … within 100 miles of each other.”
Selling their spuds to those area processors, the Vossebelts grow Russet-Burbank potatoes, a hardy variety that’s elongated to maximize the number of fries that can be cut from each. “They’re allowed to grow until harvest and dug green,” explains Delbert of Russets. “With table stock, you harvest spuds after you spray them dead. You would desiccate them and let them get a skin set for like 15 to 20 days, and then you harvest them. You lose a lot of yield because our growing season is too short here.”
Table stock typically delivers between 250 and 280 hundredweight (cwt) per acre, as compared to the 400 cwt per acre of processor-bound spuds. On average the Vossebelts grow about 1,100 acres in potatoes, and another 1,400 in cereal crops and peas, often trading land with neighboring farmers for the purpose of rotation with deep-rooted grains.
Delbert describes raising potatoes as “intensive farming,” requiring significant power from tractors involved in what he calls “mega dirt moving,” including pulling implements such as deep tillers and dammer dikers, which dig a trench and make little levees between hills to keep water in the root zone. In order to deliver potatoes to processors throughout the year, most growers also need storage that provides year-round climate control, including heating and cooling, and tubes in the floor that pump oxygen into the crop.
The Vossebelts’ storage facility can currently hold 18,000 tons of spuds, and will soon be expanded to accommodate another 4,000 tons.
While Southern Alberta’s colder climate does tend to prevent many pests and diseases from gaining a foothold, the Vossebelts and other area growers maintain an exhaustive spraying program, with applications coming about every two weeks. Even with such efforts, the region isn’t immune—late blight, the fungal pathogen that sparked the 19th-century Irish potato famine, has been found recently in Alberta.
“The weather here has changed in recent years,” says Terrence Hochstein of the Potato Growers of Alberta, the 140-member regulating and lobbying body that, among other tasks, negotiates prices with the province’s processing plants. “It’s been wetter and warmer than the norm in recent years. But that’s not a result of so-called climate change,” he contends, “it’s part of a cycle. It’s just another thing farmers raising crops here have to contend with.
“Potatoes require you put a lot of money in the ground,” continues Hochstein. “Inputs can run as much as $3,500 per acre, but the potential to earn a profit is there because the demand for potatoes is there, especially in Alberta.”
“It is a high-risk crop,” agrees John, “but it can be rewarding too. When it goes good, it’s really good; when it’s bad,” he continues with a knowing chuckle, “it’s really bad.”
Even with the risk, John says, “We would like to grow more potatoes, and we’re working toward that. When more contract becomes available [with processors], we will take that … So we’ll grow as the opportunity comes along.
“The potatoes have been good. We’ve had success as farmers, even though we had a difficult start, and it allows me to work with two of my children.”
He then looks around, smiles and asks in that booming, Dutch-laced baritone, “I can say that over the years we’ve been blessed in a lot of things, yes?”