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.
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.
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.
Welcoming Ruth and Nick into the Family Business
Daughter Ruth was determined to be a potato farmers and while in college she started to grow her own potatoes. And she was not only successful but really enjoyed doing all the farm operations related to the daily production practices.
Soon after that started, Nick Ploeg appeared on the scene, although he claimed to like cows better, soon he got into liking potatoes too!
In 2010, Ruth and Nick married and joined with full steam ahead in growing potatoes with the old folks. With lots of new ideas, passion and energy the younger generation has driven the potato business to now growing around 1400 acres of potatoes each year. Modernizing the way we farm while meeting all the requirements of Canada GAP as well as our major customers is being lead by Nick and Ruth.
Our great people make our farming operation possible. Our success in expanding the operations of our farm is directly related to a great team of loyal hard working expert staff. The photo depicts our team celebrating our annual harvest dinner together with their families.
Focus on Growing Potatoes for Chips
These are grown on sandy 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.
Some of our potato acreage receives a healthy application of beef cattle manure. Inorganic fertilizer is added to each field according to the multi sampled soil test analysis and suited for the variety of potatoes to be grown in that field. For any 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.
We have irrigation for about 75% 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.
Our potato storage was built in increments in 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2007. The total capacity today is about 350,000 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 18 bins ranging from 15,000 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.
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