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Visiting Beaver Creek Farms, A Day in the Life of a McCain Potato Farmer

McCain Blog Author Karlynn Johnston

By: Karlynn Johnston

​Karlynn is the creator & author behind one of Canada's most popular food & life...

 

One lovely spring morning out here on the Canadian Prairies, Mike and I packed up the car for a road trip out to Manitoba. Our goal: visit Beaver Creek Farms, a potato farm in partnership with McCain, during potato planting season to learn about the inner workings of a Canadian potato farm.

We drove from Edmonton to Portage la Prairie, which is about 45 minutes outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was a gorgeous drive, as our prairies in the spring are almost as pretty as the prairies in summer. We tucked ourselves into a hotel in Portage and readied ourselves for an early morning heading out to the farm.

Bright and early, we met with our fellow farm visitors and drove out to the farm. Just Northwest of Portage la Prairie, the farm is a reminder of just how close our farmers are to us and how large and widespread our prairies are. Just a few minutes off the TransCanada highway in almost any direction when you are on the prairies lie so many farms, all providing us with some of the dietary necessities of life.

The starting point of our visit was Stan’s office, the family homestead that had been restored and repurposed into the farm office.

I was– being an avid lover of all things vintage- completely enamoured with how the Wiebe family preserved their farmhouse. I am reminded of my Dad’s family’s homestead that is in Pine River, Manitoba, that is still standing from the early 1900’s, but not restored. Only a few hours drive from the Wiebe farm, in fact. What an amazing thing it is to not only embrace your heritage but preserve it in such a useful way.

I was more than a little envious of how adorable his office is. I am sure that I now need an office that looks like this.​​

 

Stan Wiebe and his brother run the family farm that was established by his father Ed Wiebe, in 1968.While they do have diversified crops, they are mainly potato farmers that supply McCain with potatoes for all their delicious products.

Stan is exactly as you would picture a prairie farmer; connected to the land, proud of his family and as hard working as the day is long. You can tell the passion that he has for the family farm in every word he says, from the story of his never having to “look” for a job alongside the fact that he’s never applied for a job in his life. He grew up on the farm, and the farm was it. His son was also helping on the farm this summer and Stan’s entire demeanour lit up whenever he talked about his children. His pride in them, his wife and the legacy of Beaver Creek Farms was so very evident throughout the day that it made me wish that all of us could get to know the people that grow our food like we got to know Stan that day.

 

Most people outside of a farming family will be surprised to learn that Stan starts out his day with around two hours of office work before he even heads out to the rest of the farm to oversee the daily routine. I suspected as much: while I don’t come from a line of potato farmers, I do come from a line of beekeepers and Manitoba farm folk and while I know that technology plays a large part in farming these days, I didn’t realize how much!

Besides the usual paperwork that we would all suspect comes into play, the drone technology alone can keep a person busy, checking the videos of the fields that were recorded, ensuring that all irrigation is running properly (also computer run!)  and of course, emails.

After the office tour and chat, it was time to head out to see the workings of a potato farm. While we were out there to see the fields and learn about planting, we also got a peek at the storage units for potatoes.

It’s hard to capture the scale of how large the storage containers for the potatoes are, but this is myself and another fellow blogger posing in front of only around 1/3 of what this can hold!

This next photo might give you more perspective: this is shot from WAY back at the front of the container. This brings the potatoes from the pile to the front, on a large conveyor system.

Here’s where I learned a lot about the entire business of growing and storing potatoes.

Did you know that potatoes are quite a delicate crop to not only grow, but also to store?  Potatoes are living organisms that need a lot of TLC to be stored over the winter until sent off to be produced into McCain products.  It takes a fine hand and a watchful eye to make sure that they are stored properly before they are brought to market. The lifespan or storage time of the potatoes is shorter than a year, which is less than most crops. This storage unit will hold approximately 3.5 million pounds of what will eventually be French fries when full!

This is one of the many air ducts in the potato storage that keeps the air at the right temperature and moving throughout. I assumed it was as easy as an old root cellar, just like Grandma and Grandpa just used to keep their potatoes down there no problem and not worry. Potatoes will heat the building that you store them in – especially in these quantities- as they are basically living, breathing bodies!

If you want to see what 1 million pounds of French fries looks like, just look at this photo below!

When it comes down to planting season, it’s another ball game entirely. One day of rain can hold up planting, as the field gets too muddy – adverse weather is always a risk for farmers. We did learn that the fields have drain tiles around the land to help move the water away from them, just like the weeping tile that we have around our houses in the city. There is also the risk that your planting potatoes can rot while you are waiting to plant them. The one thing that we learned is that even after all of Stan’s years of farming, there is a new challenge for him every year!

Speaking of planting, this is the machine that cuts the planting potatoes into two or three pieces. It can cut approximately 30,000 lbs of potatoes an hour! Much faster than manual labour!

While the ground was too wet for planting the day of our visit, we did head out to the fields with Stan. The field we went to was about a 10-minute drive from the office.

I bet you didn’t know that this is called an Air Cup Planter!

I honestly had no idea how potatoes were planted, or what machinery was used. This air cup planter is guided using GPS technology and is amazingly precise with its planting.

It spaces the potatoes the same distance apart and then covers them. Thanks to that GPS technology, the planter goes in the precise location it needs for the next row. Talk about a time and energy saver!

You can see the little “air cups” that hold the potatoes and then drop them down to be planted. They are little vacuum suction cups, basically.

Stan even uncovered a row of planted potatoes, so we could see how they were in line!

As you can probably guess, it takes more than just Stan and his family to run this very large farm. Not only is this a family run business, it seems to be a career for most of the farm staff working there. There was one gentleman we met that has been working at the farm for 29 years! I think most people assume that farm staff come and go (as I did) but Stan's farms inspires loyalty and a life long partnership.

Visiting the farm made me realize that Stan's job runs year-round, that even during the winter months when we all assume that farmers are taking a break, he is busy storing the potatoes and keeping a watchful eye on them until they are sent to McCain.  He is busy tending to the potatoes until they are ready to be used by McCain and turned into products that we all know and love. It’s truly a symbiotic relationship for the farm and McCain, one truly needs the other!

I’d like to wish a happy 50th anniversary to Stan and his family; they are planting their 39th crop for McCain this year! Their 50th anniversary is next June!

I’d like to thank Stan and his team as well as the team at McCain for having us out to the farm for such a wonderful day at the farm! It was truly a fun experience!

Karlynn