I: Settling in Canada
The VanderZaag family’s roots are in the Netherlands, where Peter’s ancestors grew potatoes in rotation with wheat, beet, flax and other crops. Peter’s uncle Date was a world-renowned potato scientist who ably combined theoretical knowledge with practical experience to help Dutch farmers improve potato production. His methods spread to many other countries in Europe and beyond.
Peter’s parents, Ann and Anne “Van” VanderZaag, and another uncle, Harry, immigrated to Canada in 1949, and after three years of working for other farmers, they purchased a farm near Alliston, Ontario. Their goal was to grow potatoes in a mixed farming operation. During the early years (1952-59), the VanderZaags grew potatoes for the fresh market. Most of the crop was sold straight out of the field at harvest. In 1959, the first potato storage was built; it held 5000 cwt and allowed potatoes to be marketed during the winter months as well.
During the 1950s, the VanderZaags were recognized for being amongst the best potato growers in the area. The brothers used what they had learned in Agricultural school in the Netherlands about soil fertility, viruses and the issues surrounding degeneration of potatoes. Soon the farmers were coming to buy VanderZaag’s small potatoes (less than 50 mm) as seed for the coming year. Uncle Harry also became famous for planting very straight potato rows, as if he had a GPS device in the 1950s! As a boy, Peter got involved in the farm any way he could; his favourite jobs included driving the tractor during harvest and harrowing.
In the early 1960s, the potato business changed dramatically as demand for potato chips grew. Consequently, Dad sold our dairy cows and shifted the focus to potatoes and, to a lesser extent, pigs. We connected with the Hostess potato chip plant in Cambridge (then called Schnieders), which needed chipping potatoes. In those first few years, we sold the variety Kennebec in 100 lb bags loaded onto trucks. By 1963, we had purchased a two-row harvester. We put bulk boxes of about 160 cwt on trailers with airplane tires pulled by our farm tractors. With these trailers, we loaded highway dump trailers with potatoes that were shipped to Cambridge and either chipped immediately or stored for use over the winter.
We continued to grow table potatoes as well, until our total acreage devoted to potatoes increased to about 200 acres by 1970. The chip industry continued to expand, both for Hostess and Salada Foods, which had a chip plant in Alliston.