I took a short trip to MacGregor, Manitoba last month with McCain Foods to meet with potato grower, Stan Weibe from Beaver Creek Farms. Stan was kind enough to take some time to answer our questions and also showed us around the farm so we could see how the potato farming process works. I definitely wasn’t prepared for the amount of knowledge I was about to take in but I’ve done my best to summarize the trip for you because this farm has a great story.
The first thing that jumped out at me from listening to Stan speak was the importance of family and the role it played on the farm. Stan has been working full time at Beaver Creek, previously owned by his father, since the summer of 1975 when he joined the family business after high school. His father got their first potato contract in 1968 and they have been McCain growers since 1978, so when I talk about family, I’m not just talking about blood relatives. Stan mentioned that he didn’t take to farming at first but feels blessed that he stuck with it because there’s a special feeling knowing that he gets to feed families around the world.
Stan’s passion for potatoes was topped only by the way he spoke of his family. He starts his day early but still finds time to go home for coffee with his wife in the morning and again for lunch and dinner. He told us of her musical talents, passion for life, their ongoing battle of crib, and their deep love of both of their children.
The family story didn’t end there, however, as it became clear that Stan regards all his farm’s employees as extended members of his family. He mentioned that they have never had to post a job because most people stay once they’ve started working at Beaver Creek, with most employees having been there 10-15 years. On top of that, Stan runs the farm with his brother, Don, who has 4 kids, one of which works on the farm.
As you can see, the potatoes are secondary to the real story, which is that it takes a strong family environment to make a business as large as a farm successful. That said, we did talk a lot about potatoes and it was fascinating learning how McCain potatoes go from farm to fork. Seeing as I could write another 3,000 words discussing what I learned, I’m going to give you some quick hits of my favourite parts of the tour. Ready?
Technology on the Farm
By far, the most interesting part of the farm tour, for me, was listening to Stan describe the importance of technology in the running of the farm. They bought into technology early on, buying their first computer in 1989. Today, every single tractor, combine and sprayer is guided by satellite and GPS coordinates, which means hands off the steering wheel for the drivers, leaving them to focus on making sure the job is done right.
When I remarked how cool this was, Stan mentioned how it was way beyond the cool factor because of the economic value technology brings to the farm. The fertilizer and seed are now planted so efficiently that it’s no longer required to double-up to ensure they achieve strong amounts of growth. He can also log into the mainframe from his smartphone to check and adjust the temperature, humidity and other factors in all of the potato storages.
I still say it was extremely cool and sitting inside one of the tractors was like being on the deck of the USS Enterprise with all the screens and gadgets.
Potato & Seed Storages
The technology side of farming was cool, but seeing the inside of the potato storages was absolutely mesmerizing. We had heard of the wall-to-wall potato storage facilities on our immersion trip in Toronto but to actually see it was incredible. I must have stared at the massive pile of harvested potatoes for too long because I have almost no notes from our time inside the storage but rather about 1,000 photos of the potato wall.
I should note that the safety and sanitation measures taken on site were impeccable. As Stan put it, each potato is a living organism that will be going into someone’s mouth, and very little changes from the time it leaves the farm to the moment it hits a plate. They require greater care than other crops and they take that responsibility very seriously. As a consumer, this was very reassuring.
The seed storage was a much smaller pile because they were already about halfway done their planting for the season. That said, we had a chance to check out the seed cutting machine, which generally cuts each russet potato 6 ways to produce 8-10 plants per seed piece. Stan also brought up the fact that while potatoes have great potential for income, they are also the poorest reproducers as it takes approximately 16 bags of potatoes to produce 340 bags. When you factor in challenges such as poor weather and potential soil issues, you have to make sure you are all on the same page.
Other Odds & Ends
* Something else I found interesting was our discussion about the way crops are planted. As a non-farmer I didn’t realize that you can’t just plant potatoes in the same field year in and year out because a solid rotation of crops is extremely important for the oral health of the farm and the soil. In fact, Beaver Creek has a 4 year rotation between potato crops, as one field will see wheat, corn, canola and potatoes in consecutive years.
* Consumer acceptance generally drives the potato market. Even though a potato such as the Innovator may taste the same while being a more cost effective option to harvest, North Americans are having a hard time with the yellow colour and often pass on it for the well known Russet Burbank variety. In Europe, however, the Innovator is thriving.
* There was a running joke throughout the weekend that I had purchased new work boots for the trip but due to the weather I had been unable to dirty them up. I’m happy to report that they did not come home clean.
By the time the day was over my mind was bursting with knowledge and I hope I was able to impart some of that wisdom with you. The true story of this trip, for me, was how the strong family bond on this farm helped to make it the success that it has been for over 50 years. We were already a McCain household but after this trip my confidence in McCain Foods grew even larger.
Thank you to Stan Weibe and the crew at Beaver Creek Farms Ltd for their hospitality, the tour and all the incredible information.
Disclosure: I was compensated for my participation in the Farm to Fork program, however the passion of the farmers and everyone involved in the McCain family is incredibly infectious.