Chapter 7

Hot Potato

Where pea protein is today in Manitoba, just leaving the starting blocks with so much promise and financing behind it, potatoes were at half a century ago.

It was 1962 when the J.R. Simplot Co. opened its first potato processing plant in Carberry. That marked the beginning of 58 years of potato processing and job creation that is still going strong today.

Potatoes moved from a minor crop in the 1950s, grown mostly by market gardeners northeast of Winnipeg, to a crop contributing more than $1.4 billion annually to the economy. Today, potatoes are Manitoba’s fourth-largest crop in economic terms behind canola, wheat and soybeans. However, those grain crops require 30 – 50 times more acreage.

But Simplot’s choice of location in Manitoba was a bit of a puzzle back then. There weren’t a lot of potatoes grown in the Carberry area yet. Just 300 acres were planted in 1960.

It wasn’t entirely a “build it and they will come” story, but it was close. Much of the potato farming in Manitoba had been by market gardeners along the Red River. But growing potatoes in the Red River soybeans gumbo was like working with Crazy Glue. The clay gumbo gummed up machinery. There were extra costs for cleaning off the clay that glommed to all the tubers, and that meant soil loss, too.

So some vegetable growers, tired of mucking around in clay, started to move into the Portage la Prairie-Carberry corridor in 1959 and the early 1960s. They wanted to grow root crops on sandier soils. After the Simplot announcement, it was wagons ho! The migration accelerated. Go west, young man, at least 150 kilometres west for potato growers.

Mike Gowryluk moved from Lockport to the Holland area, Harry Dealebozik from north of Winnipeg to Treherne, and Ed Connery to Portage la Prairie where he started Connery Riverdale Farms. Willie Gobert moved from St. Vital to north of Portage la Prairie, Tony Adriaansen from Henderson Highway in Winnipeg to Carberry, and Steve Kaminski and brothers Dick and Everett Mulder from East St. Paul to Carberry and Portage la Prairie. The migration is detailed in The People, The Potato, The Process, an excellent book by writer John Dietz and staff of the Keystone Potato Producers Association, penned for the association’s 50th anniversary (1969 – 2019).

Manitoba’s potato production more than doubled from 15,000 acres in 1959, to 33,000 acres by 1970, most of that near Carberry.

The potato sector continued to be the gift that keeps on giving. Potato production expanded again when McCains moved into Portage la Prairie in 1978—the availability of water and transportation routes were the reasons given, in addition to potato growing conditions. In 2003, Simplot opened in Portage la Prairie. Manitoba potato acreage hit a high of 103,000 that year. Acreage has fallen off somewhat to 70,000 acres today, but production is actually higher due to more irrigation. By comparison, neighbouring Saskatchewan seeds about 6,000 acres of potatoes per year. The Saskatchewan government has tried using subsidies to create its own potato industry, and it announced plans in late 2020 to try again.

Making french fries has been their raison d’etre from the start. McCain and Simplot almost exclusively make french fries for the frozen food market, as well as hash browns and potato wedges. A much smaller processor, Old Dutch in Winnipeg, makers of potato chips, accounts for 1,400 acres of potato production, versus about 55,000 acres for french fry processors. The three companies process more than 80 per cent of Manitoba’s potatoes. The remaining 20 per cent of potatoes are seed potatoes or for the table market.

Both Simplot and McCain recently put more money into their Manitoba facilities. Simplot invested $460 million to double the capacity of the Portage la Prairie plant it originally built for $120 million in 2003, adding 90 jobs for a total workforce of 365 people. McCain reinvested $75 million at facilities in Carberry and Portage la Prairie, where it has 333 employees combined. Meanwhile, Old Dutch Foods has about 160 employees. That makes direct employment by potato processors at about 900 people, including Manitoba Starch Company of Carberry and its prebiotics arm. The potato industry employs more than 3,000 Manitobans.

THERE WAS SOMETHING else in Carberry’s favour back in 1962: the former British Commonwealth Air Training hangars and other buildings from the Second World War. Kaminski and the Mulder brothers from East St. Paul bought one of four abandoned hangars to store their vegetables. Local people formed a Carberry Development Corporation to purchase the other buildings and use them to try to attract business. The development corporation sold $100 shares to the community and purchased the base south of Carberry for $62,700 in 1960.

That sweetened the pot when Idaho potato processor J.R. Simplot, 52, a millionaire by the time he was 30, flew into town.  His company was already the largest potato processor in the United States. Carberry Development Corporation had invited Simplot to come down and have a look-see. Acting separately, the provincial government industry department also extended an invitation to Simplot to tour four locations: Carberry, Souris, Carman and Winkler.

Simplot was shown around the former RCAF hangar and then he asked for a tour of the countryside. “This is like the Garden of Eden,” he said prophetically.[i] That same night, a Simplot official phoned the development corporation to inquire about buying the airport. The company wanted to build a french fry manufacturing plant. In order to get Kaminski and the Mulders to sell their independently-owned hangar, Simplot made Kaminski its manager of field operations.

That Simplot visit was the start of something that would affect the livelihoods of generations of Manitobans and replenish municipal, provincial and federal coffers with tax dollars for generations. You look at Simplot, Richardson, McCain, Roquette, Cargill—they’re all family-owned mega-businesses in the food industry, and when they spend their money, it’s usually a pretty sound investment.

Manitoba potatoes were also sold to make potato chips. Hunter’s Potato Chips began processing potatoes in Winnipeg in the 1930s, followed by Irish Potato Chips. Irish Potato was shuttered in the 1950s to make way for Old Dutch Foods, a Minneapolis company that moved into Winnipeg in 1954 and made it the Canadian headquarters. The founder was American Carl J. Marx. Judging by his business acumen, this Marx should not be confused with communism theorist, Karl. Carl Marx chose the company name not from any personal history but because “Dutch” was associated with quality and cleanliness. Kroeker Farms in Winkler was on the ground floor supplying both Irish Potato Chips and Old Dutch. Again, Old Dutch is another privately owned food company.

Simplot was the first company to mass produce frozen french fries starting in 1953. The first McDonald’s restaurant opened in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois. Of lesser note, Hasbro toymakers came out with Mr. Potato Head in 1952. That’s where a nose and eyes and arms and legs are stuck onto a potato. The invention never used up as many tubers as people’s appetite for french fry sector, but every bit helps.

Comfort food restaurants like Skinner’s in Lockport opened in 1929, and Manitoba’s most successful local restaurant chain, Salisbury House, named after the Salisbury steak, in 1931. But people only started to eat out more and develop a taste for fast food restaurants in the 1950s. The first A&W opened in Winnipeg in 1956. McDonald’s took it to another level when it arrived in 1968 on Winnipeg’s Nairn Avenue. It was the start of fast foods, and the matching-making of that inseparable couple: burgers and fries. The market for potatoes hasn’t been the same since.

In 1967, Simplot signed a historic contract to supply frozen french fries to McDonald’s restaurants. Carberry became the first Canadian supplier of frozen fries to the restaurant chain. In the 1970s, Carberry supplied all french fries for McDonald’s restaurants in Canada.

Simplot was in for the long haul in Carberry but almost immediately entered a 50-50 partnership with Carnation, which had the distribution channels. In 1984, Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé S.A. bought out Carnation and the Carberry site was eventually renamed Midwest Food Products. Simplot retained half ownership. McCain Foods bought Carberry in 2006 and has run it ever since.

The demands of the first Carberry plant saw potato production spread out from Carberry to Portage la Prairie and down through Carman and Winkler in silty, sandy soils. It expanded so much the Carberry Growers Association, which began in 1962, changed its name to Keystone Vegetable Producers Association in 1969. There were also pockets of potato acreage in places like Souris, Teulon and Lockport. The prime potato growing area today is in a triangle of lighter, sandier soils between Carberry, Portage la Prairie and a Winkler-Carman corridor which runs along the sandy beaches of former glacial Lake Agassiz.

LOCAL POTATO FARMERS could produce good yields but in the 2000s that wasn’t enough for processors.

Prior to building the Portage la Prairie plant in 2003, the Association of Irrigators of Manitoba conducted a survey at Simplot’s request. The survey came back that Manitoba farmers planned to add 43,000 acres of irrigation in the next three to five years, 32,000 of that for potatoes.[ii]

So when Simplot opened its new Portage la Prairie plant, the company said it would only buy from producers who irrigated. Well, few farmers had irrigation at the time. After all, potatoes are a very efficient plant and require considerably less water than most crops. The eastern Prairies also have more precipitation than farther west.

And no one was crazy about the cost. A single circle irrigation system today is about $130,000, or about $1,000 per acre. A number of government programs had to be created, and government and producers invested in irrigation infrastructure. A massive transformation took place.[iii] McCain, seeing what Simplot had done, issued a similar demand.

Hence, life got a lot cushier for the Manitoba spud. Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association, calls it the “humble potato” in the preface to KPPA’s 50th anniversary book, but don’t all vegetables display humility? Have you ever seen an arrogant potato? Yet the way potatoes are pampered today, with all the irrigation and proper soils and other attentions, they seem almost the perfumed, frilly-sleeved, periwigged aristocrats of pre-French Revolution days, among field crops. Of the 70,000 acres of potatoes in 2020, about 65,000 acres were irrigated, said KPPA. That’s all 55,000 acres for the processing market, and much of the table and potato seed production. It costs $3,816 to produce one acre of potatoes, about 10 times more than cereal production, and that excludes labour costs (2018).

“It’s just so competitive in this business. Unless you irrigate, you can’t compete with other areas that are getting higher yields,” said Sawatzky in an interview.

It’s come a long way. From the early 1900s to the mid-1960s, producers in Manitoba averaged less than 100 hundredweight of potatoes per acre. Today, Manitoba producers average just over 350 cwt. per acre. That’s up considerably from a decade earlier. From 2000 – 2009, Manitoba yields were in the 300 cwt. range—that was when the irrigation boom was just starting. Those levels today would run you out of business, said Sawatzky.

Manitoba’s yield of 350 cwt. is the average for Canada: Alberta get more at about 390 cwt., and Prince Edward Island slightly below 300 cwt.

But production here is not like some areas with longer growing seasons. Washington state averages 650 cwt. and some varieties can get close to 1,000 cwt. No place else in the world gets yields like that. According to World Potato News, Canada ranks 5th in yield per hectare. The U.S. is leading at 50.3 tonnes per hectare while Canada is at 39.1 tonnes per hectare. Netherlands, France and Belgium are 42, 41.3 and 41, respectively.

Manitoba has the second largest potato industry in Canada after Prince Edward Island in terms of production and value, although Manitoba beats PEI some years. PEI plants more acres but has lower yields. Alberta is nipping at Manitoba’s heels with increased processing capacity and a robust seed potato sector.

That’s thanks to a good climate for growing spuds. They like stable daytime temperatures of around 21 C. They do not like temperatures over 30 C. Manitoba’s cooler nights are preferred because it slows respiration, which enhances storage of starch in the tubers.

There are about 57 potato farms for the processing market, with two or three producers on each farm. A half dozen of those farmers also grow for the table market, in addition to three farms that grow exclusively for the local table market, bringing the total number of potato producers to 60. The bulk of the harvest in Manitoba starts the second week of September and ends the first week of October.

THAT FIRST CARBERRY plant in 1962 prompted Sheldon Wiebe’s grandfather, father and his father’s brother to get into potato farming in 1966 near MacGregor.

In the early 2000s, Wiebe even had a reservoir dug to irrigate some potatoes.

But in 2005 he started looking for more land and found some on the escarpment. He kept his farm site where it is but moved the potato operations onto the escarpment between Sidney and Carberry. It was a big move, and included converting to irrigation. It was part of having to adapt to changing times. “We went to 100 per cent irrigation in 2007,” said Sheldon.

He is a third generation Wiebe on the farm, and one of his sons is partnered with him to become the fourth generation.

Sheldon appreciates the sandy soil on the escarpment compared to the constant battle with too much moisture on the clays below it. “Potatoes don’t like wet feet,” he said.

Wiebe doesn’t regret investing in irrigation. He had always planned to do that one day but Simplot’s edict prompted him to get on with it.

“It’s always been a passion of mine to do the best with what we have,” he said. The cost of irrigation is paying off, even if that cost won’t be paid off for a long time. “If we didn’t have irrigation we would not have a crop. Our land is too sandy,” he said.

He harvests 2,500 acres of potatoes a year, and spends about a week every month just delivering potato loads to the processor. Like so many farms, Wiebe is an employer, too. He employs 12 people full-time, and many of them have been with the farm for 10 – 15 years. At harvest time, the farm gets up to 45 staff, a third of them foreign workers from Mexico. The rest are local people “who spend a month with us and help us get our crop in.”

It’s been an extraordinarily satisfying experience for Sheldon, 50, and his wife, Jennifer, who have managed to live and raised their children in a healthy, food producing environment.

“There are days, there are absolutely days when cash is tight and you’ve got all these assets and inventory, and you have to wait for the company to say, ‘Yup, we need your potatoes now.’”

“But we love what we do, and if I can spread the load a little bit with the family, that helps. It’s a team effort.”

THE SIMPLOT AND MCCAIN plants have great examples of economic spinoffs that result from such plants. One spinoff was trucking. More potatoes meant more transportation. At some point, Simplot’s contracts required producers to deliver 15 semi-loads on days when it was their turn, to keep production at its plant steady. That was too much for many individual producers, so new trucking firms sprouted up.

One was created by potato growers in the Winkler area who pooled their trucks to form a single company called Burbank Express Ltd. Founded in 2005, it hauls potatoes 24/7. It started with eight trucks and nine employees, and had 40 full-time employees and 33 trucks and trailers in 2019. Other trucking firms saw increases in business but none like Burbank. Growers for McCain Foods are still hauling their own potatoes or employ truckers like Latimer Trucking of Treherne or King Spud of Carberry.[iv]

ANOTHER OFFSHOOT FROM the potato industry has been Manitoba Starch Products (MSP) and its affiliate, MSPrebiotics Inc.

The potato starch company was begun by former Albertan Roger Moore in 1987. Moore developed a method to remove the starch from the effluent water in potato processing. In the making of french fries, cutting potatoes ruptures the potato cells and releases a milky residue containing starch. The processors deliver this effluent to MSP, which extracts the starch, and the water is then recycled to process more french fries. Moore sold the starch for industrial use, primarily as a binding agent in recycled paper.

In 2002, Carberry potato growers, brothers Earl and Derek McLaren, got the itch to get into processing and bought MSP. They had a vision to build on what Moore started: improve the extraction process and the end product, and expand the product line. They wanted to make human and pet food-grade products. The brothers worked with the Food Development Centre, National Research Council, St. Boniface Research Centre and consulting firms to develop a food grade starch.

First of all, that’s not supposed to happen. When you start out as potato growers, you’re supposed to stay potato farmers and not stray into something weird like owning a starch company. Secondly, you’re not supposed to start working with scientists from across the country, coaching them from your farmyard with the quonsets and farm dog and fencing all around, to perform significant food health experiments.

But that’s what the McLarens did. They obtained government food status for their starch and their factory started processing for human consumption. A major market for potato starch is gluten-free foods. Potato starch is also used as a binding agent. For example, it is used to make the flavour stick to dry roasted peanuts, and to keep cheese from sticking together in bags of shredded cheese.

Next, the McLarens directed research into the area of prebiotics, or gut health. What impact could potato starch have? Their research showed potatoes contain what’s called a “resistant starch,” meaning starch that isn’t digested by the time it reaches the large intestine. 

Most carbs, protein