By Anna Smith
With nearly 25 years dedicated to his operation and each one of those days full, Allen Kuizenga is more than happy with his career as a potato farmer.
The process of learning about that was a long one, as the interview took place at the storage building, as potatoes came off the field, out of trucks through the clodhopper and the watchful eye of employees.
Then it was in his truck; first down gravel roads to help a neighbour operate a drill, then through the field itself to get a closer look at the automated potato harvester.
“I still consider myself a new guy. There’s newer ones but you know, there’s those farm families that are three, four generations in,” said Kuizenga. “Now that’s a long time.”
Kuizenga grows two varieties of potato; one he calls ‘table potatoes,” which will be shipped to grocery stores, and Russet-Burbank potatoes, which are destined for processing.
“I guess you can say this is for the French fry market, this is where your French fries started,” said Kuizenga. “From the field all the way to storage here.”
Kuizenga added that he’s fortunate to have had 24 harvests without a major incident, and attributes that to how attentive his employees are come harvest time; any job can be dangerous, especially those involving large machinery, but it’s only “as dangerous as you make it,” he adds.
Kuizenga himself is a second generation farmer, but the first in his family to grow potatoes.
“Dad was one of the original founders of the bean plant in Bow Island, grew grain and sugar beets,” said Kuizenga. “Land prices are getting higher and higher. And back in the late 90’s you couldn’t buy a farm on those crops. So that’s why we got into potatoes. But now grain and that is good again. Potatoes are more stable.”
Unlike grain, which can rely on the prices in the world market, potatoes are generally steady and even from year to year, said Kuizenga.
For him, harvest starts the first week of September, and will likely continue on until the end of it, if he’s got a good yield to work through. Kuizenga is expecting roughly 15,000 tons of potatoes this year, something he’s glad to owe to the irrigation of his fields in these conditions.
After harvest, however, he’ll be just as busy.
“End of September just because after that, well winter comes you have to get all the fields ready for next year after harvest and still just busy doing field work,” said Kuizenga, adding that during the winter, he’ll still be busy fixing farm equipment and shipping out potatoes.
In the next few weeks, he’ll also be keeping an especially careful eye on his potatoes over a complex digital monitoring system, making sure the temperature and humidity remain where they need to be to keep the curing produce ready to make a good impression on the buyer.
“They say you grow potatoes twice,” said Kuizenga. “First in the field, and then in storage.” When he started, the technology was much less expensive, and less complex, but in many ways, keeping the potatoes in good shape once they leave the field has become much easier.
Hopefully, however, he’ll still have time for a passion of his, which is trying to mend the divide between rural producers and their more urban consumer counterparts.
There’s been years of disconnect, said Kuizenga, which has in some places lead to a prevailing idea that farmers are refusing to adapt or even trying to harm people with their use of pesticides or GMO plants. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
“The stuff we have that we use is extensively tested for safety to human beings. And if there are questions, they just don’t really see it on the market,” said Kuizenga. “Roundup is safe. I mean, you don’t go swimming in it, and don’t drink it. The issue is, in the city you see people spraying Roundup in weed patches in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, which is not smart. Those are the people that will get sick.”
He added that this can contribute to the misconception of how dangerous things like Roundup really are, and these can cause farmers to be closed off to the more genuinely curious public, which only further burns bridges that need to be mended.
“The rural-urban divide is getting worse every year,” said Kuizenga. “That’s why I really enjoy it when people from the city come out here and have a look. In fact, just yesterday, we got a gentleman from Medicine Hat. He was curious, he came here with a trailer and then we filled his trailer up with potatoes. He gives it all to the homeless and food banks and such. But yeah, he had never seen anything like this before.”
The other issue this divide has caused can be felt in the lack of young blood in agriculture, said Kuizenga, in a lot of former farm families dwindling as they’re bought out or their children choose to pursue different careers without anyone coming in to replace them.
It’s a situation that’s going to be keenly felt, said Kuizenga, as the job of feeding a growing world population only gets more complicated and more demanding.
“I encourage the young people to open their eyes. Take a look at agriculture. It’s not as bad as people say, it’s a very fulfilling occupation,” said Kuizenga. “The young kids shy away from farming because it takes too much to get into it, too much money, which they’re not wrong. But I know people that came with nothing. And they have started just by hard work and determination and smarts. And, you know, maybe some luck on their side.”
He also encourages those who are curious, either as a profession or just to gain a better understanding of their rural neighbours, to reach out to local farms to ask for a visit; they are likely to be more receptive than one can expect.
“It’s amazing what you might learn when you go out,” said Kuizenga.