Like the potato itself, the best parts of SunRISE Potato are not immediately visible. You might have to do a little digging to learn more.

 

The first VanderZaags emigrated from Holland in 1949, successfully transplanting their extensive knowledge of potato production onto Canadian soil. Peter and Carla spent almost twenty years overseas, studying and developing potato production methods in countries as diverse as Rwanda and the Philippines. Two generations now grow 1000 acres of potatoes annually, having put down roots where the previous generation of VanderZaags originally immigrated.

 

Today, we focus on the sustainable production of our conventional chipping and table potatoes, organic potatoes and seed production. Our state-of-the-art storage facilities hold 400,000 cwt (18,000 tonnes) in 20 bins, which allows us to ship the crop from September’s harvest to the following July.

 

 

History | Production | Storage | Shipping | Sustainability

History

Holland (1949) to Alliston (2018)
I: Settling in Canada

 

ontario-potato-farmingThe 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.

II: Overseas experience

 

Peter completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Vegetable Crops from Cornell University in 1972, and then left for two years of volunteer service in Bangladesh with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. Although he was not—at first—interested in going overseas, he became convicted by God’s spirit to help others—namely Bangladeshi farmers. As a result, Peter focused on improving the potato production of Bangladeshi farmers. That was a challenge, but it was also a very rewarding experience. His Uncle Date visited from Holland and became his expert advisor through correspondence.

 

Carla, a daughter of Baptist Missionaries, met Peter in Bangladesh. They got married in 1975, after Carla’s graduation from Baylor University and Peter’s volunteer term. They proceeded to Hawaii to pursue graduate degrees: Carla, for an M Ed in Early Childhood Education, and Peter, a PhD in Tropical Agronomy.

 

In 1979, Peter and Carla joined the International Potato Centre (CIP). Their first assignment was in Rwanda, Africa, to develop national potato programs there and in Burundi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Uganda. It was rewarding work that nurtured new friendships.

 

From 1982 to mid-1991, Peter and Carla worked for CIP in South-east Asia based in the Philippines. Countries like China and Vietnam were ready to improve their potato production, which was a great opportunity for us to contribute our knowledge. We helped to introduce new varieties, to improve crop management and to train young scientists in short-term, specialized training and at the graduate degree level.

 

Presently Peter spends substantial blocks of time with overseas work on Potato Research and Development activities primarily in Asia.

III: Welcoming SunRISE

 

In 1990, we decided to return to Canada and start our own potato farm, near Peter’s Dad, his brother, Uncle Harry and cousins. It was time for Peter to practice what he preached. Both Peter and Carla pictured the farm as a place where children could be involved. Among our initial challenges were finding land, setting up financing, and securing a market for the crop.

 

We were fortunate on all fronts, thanks to a supportive bank manager, chipping potato contracts and a high school friend with equipment. We called the farm SunRISE, which, in the Orient, symbolizes hope!

 

In the early years, we grew about 300 acres of chipping potatoes annually, which we gradually increased to over 500 acres ten years later (read this for more information on managing multi-generational family farming). In 2010, with the full involvement of daughter Ruth and her husband, Nick, we now grow over 1200 acres of potatoes each year.

Our Production Practices

I: Conventional chipping potatoes.

 

These are grown on sandy loam or silt loam soils, normally with a two-year rotation. The alternate rotation crop is usually corn, wheat or rye, depending on the soil type and harvest date for the potatoes.

 

ontario-potato-storageAll our potato acreage receives a healthy application of beef cattle or swine manure. This supplies most of the fertility requirements for the potato crop. Some varieties need a side-dressing of inorganic nitrogen. Sometimes, a light dose of potassium is added. When we obtain a new farm, we first ensure that the pH and calcium levels are adequate through an application of lime. All soil amendments are determined after taking extensive soil samples (every 1-4 acres) which are analyzed in a lab. GPS tracking records the location of each sample as it’s obtained. Based on these results, we can create detailed maps of the soil health of each field. The maps allow us to apply the extra nutrients at specific, variable rates.

 

Prior to planting, we prepare our seed potatoes by cutting them into appropriately sized seed pieces that are treated with a fungicide and a systemic insecticide to help control insects during the first 80 days of the growing season. During the growing season, we have a three-pronged approach: we apply a pre-emergent herbicide to control weeds, we may do a final hilling before the rows are full, and we spray a protectant fungicide as needed to control late blight (P. Infestans), as well as other fungal diseases.

 

We have irrigation for about 65% of our crop acres. The general rule is that the crop needs 25 mm of water per week from late June to late August. The irrigation will make up what is not received in rainfall.
Three weeks prior to the targeted harvest date, we check the potato tubers for sucrose levels and if the readings are acceptable, the vines are desiccated to allow the tuber skin to mature and become firm. When soil temperature are between 10 and 22 Celsius, the crop is harvested. This avoids the bruising and tuber damage which may occur at higher or lower temperatures.

II: Seed production.

 

We utilize the provincial basic seed program for maintaining and multiplying our own varieties. These are then grown by several contracted farmers in other areas, depending on our needs. We may multiply the final generation on our farm if we need more seed. Generally, we plant Elite III or Elite IV seed for our commercial crop.

Potato Storage

I: Chipping potatoes.

 

potato-storageOur potato storage was built in increments in 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2007. The total capacity today is about 400,000 cwt of potatoes. The stored potatoes do not touch any outside walls. With excellent insulation in the walls and ceiling, the potatoes themselves generate more than enough heat to prevent freezing, even when it is -30C outside.

Our storage has 20 bins ranging from 12,000 cwt to 25,000 cwt in capacity. Each bin has automatically controlled ventilation, humidification and temperature control. Some bins also automatically flush out high levels of CO2.
Storage temperatures need to be between 8 and 12C. If sucrose and glucose levels in the tubers are high, we maintain higher temperatures. Once sucrose and glucose levels are low enough to create the ideal white potato chip, we will lower the temperature to 8C for long term storage. We often store potatoes from September harvest to July of the following year.

 

II: Seed and table potatoes.

 

After harvest, we store the potatoes at between 12-15C for two weeks. After they are cured, the temperature is lowered to 4C. It is held there until April or May, when we warm them up and generally complete the marketing of the table potatoes.

SHIPPING

Shipping chip potatoes.

 

During the storage period, samples are taken from each bin on a periodic basis. These are evaluated for sucrose and glucose levels; and are also sliced and fried at 350F/180C to check the chip quality. Dark chips indicate high sugar levels, which we can burn off through temperature manipulation. Once the bin samples fry white, the bin is deemed ready for shipping or the temperature is lowered to 8C for holding until the purchaser wants the potatoes.

 

Just before shipping, all the potatoes are washed and sorted to remove those with physically observable defects (green, scab, or rotten). The remaining ones are loaded onto tractor trailers for delivery to the designated chips plants in Canada or the North-east United States. The chip plants will send us a report on the chipping quality of each load. If defective chips exceed 15%, the load will be rejected. The challenge, therefore, is to sample enough potatoes to accurately reflect what is being shipped to each chipping plant, and avoid the issue of having a load returned

SUSTAINABILITY

NURTURING DEEP ROOTS IN SUSTAINABILITY

 

Sunrise Potato Storage Ltd. focuses on soil health and the impact on agriculture.

 

The VanderZaag family has been growing potatoes for generations, initially in the Netherlands, and then immigrating to Alliston, Ont. For founder of Sunrise Potato Storage Ltd., Peter VanderZaag, it is not just about producing a marketable crop but returning life to the depleted soils around the world.