Canada’s largest organic potato farm also happens to be corporate, family-run, and supported by its fourth-generation shareholders.
Two years ago, after a lengthy gestation, a healthy organic baby was born in Manitoba. The proud mother—Kroeker Farms, based in Winkler—is a large conventional potato and vegetable farm. The massive baby—Poplar Grove Farm—is Kroeker Farm’s new organic division.
It all began almost 90 years ago, in 1928, when Abram and Elizabeth Kroeker, a Mennonite couple, began raising pigs and growing raspberries on the place they called Poplar Grove Farm. In 1955, the farming operation was incorporated as Kroeker Farms Limited, with A.A. Kroeker and nine children (the second generation) as shareholders. Now, there are 163 family shareholders, spanning five generations of Kroekers.
The two farms are governed by a single family-based board of directors, with each of the nine clans represented on the board. Most shares are held by the clans, but employee ownership is growing. CEO Wayne Rempel is one of 16 non-family shareholders.
At the beginning of this century, the board managed more than 6,000 acres of vegetables, mostly potatoes, very successfully. However, it recognized an internal issue that put the future in question. It needed a pathway for a largely urban and distant fourth generation to take ‘ownership’ of their inheritance.
That fourth generation now includes 91 individuals in the 20-30-40 age range, scattered widely across North America. There are even three fifth-generation shareholders, in their teens and early 20s.
This is a little of that gestation story. Out of the organic gestation, by twos and fours, the poorest fields were committed to organic efforts. They were successful and multiplied. Today, the organic farming division is thriving, with its own identity, supported by a deeply committed new generation.
To gather pieces of the story, TCOG interviewed three people. Wayne Rempel is the chief executive officer and president, who came on staff in 1988 and became CEO in 2002. Wally Kroeker is a third-generation shareholder, who recently retired from the board. Scott Kroeker, 46, teaches chemistry at the University of Manitoba. He’s a fourth generation figure, and Wally’s son.
Kroeker Farms’ motto: “At Kroeker Farms we are committed to building and maintaining fertile, living soils while protecting the intricate balance of earth, water and air.”
“The transition goes back to 2002 or 2003,” says Wally Kroeker. At the time, he was secretary to the board. “Wayne used to meet with the young guys, the fourth generation, every year to answer their questions and bring them along.”
They saw a clear interest in organic agriculture from the new generation. At the time, he recalls, senior managers were already thinking about organic production. They got encouragement from a board member who lived in the Boston area.
He assured the family that organic vegetables were becoming a market niche, and reminded them of their mission statement to ‘meet people’s needs’. He argued that producing a certified organic potato at a commercial scale would be difficult at best, costly at worst, but worth the effort.
Wally says, “Eventually, we tried it in a small way. We knew people were interested; we knew it was a lot of work to qualify. Each piece of land had to be clean for three years before it certified. It also was more labor intensive for potatoes and onions.”
In retrospect, Wally Kroeker has converted his thinking. He observes, “As a result of the organic department, we have learned things that have helped us on the conventional side. We are now using less chemicals in our conventional side. We’re modelling a fairly substantial increase in organic awareness, and that makes me proud. I’m not thinking we should go 100% organic, but I’m OK with it. The fewer chemicals the better, as far as I’m concerned.”
Wayne Rempel picks up the story: “Making the transition is an expensive process. We started organic farming on the poorest land. I wasn’t prepared to give up prime pieces for this experiment. It started as 20 acres, doubled, and doubled again. It was still an experiment, for years, but we kept adding to it. Finally, we realized this is working well so we started transitioning some of the better land,” Rempel says.
“Two years ago, we decided it needed a separate identity. Now, Poplar Grove Farm has a 5000 acre landbase. Kroeker Farms, our conventional side, still grows 5,000 acres of potatoes and uses a land base of about 20,000 acres.”
Together, the two farms stretch west almost 150 km from the original Winkler farm. It is a mixture of owned and rented land. Nearly all of Poplar Grove Farm has tile drainage and a third is irrigated.
The Poplar Grove label is on four kinds of potatoes, plus onions, butternut squash, wheat, barley, rye, spelt and hemp. It has experience with organic raspberries, corn and other crops.
Poplar Grove still is relatively low key, the CEO says, but enjoying a good response from the customers. “Our customers, the larger grocery chains like Sobey’s, Safeway and Loblaw’s, are pretty excited about what we’re doing,” Rempel says. “Public response is good, too. We’re doing so many things right, and they like what we’re doing.”
The top challenges in crop management are weed control, followed by disease and insect control. Frequent rains in a summer like 2016 also get in the way of non-chemical weed control operations.
Even for a big corporate farm, the ‘solutions’ to these issues are expensive.
“Organic farming is way more sophisticated than conventional farming. It takes a lot more research, a lot more attention to doing things right, and way more equipment than we use for conventional farming,” Wayne says.
“It takes probably 10 times the management that conventional production does. You have a short window to get things done, so you have to be equipped well enough to do these operations in a very short time.”
Big self-propelled sprayers are not on the list of organic farming options. “We do mechanical weed control as much as possible, but hand labor is still a huge part of weed control. It varies, but we’ve had more than 150 people working in the organic fields at certain times. Even right now, in early August, it would be 50 people,” he says.
Organic storage also is distinctive. “We tend to put it into our best storages that have great climate control, because we can’t put any artificial sprout inhibitors on organic products. We have to control it with precise temperatures and humidity. Definitely, it’s more sophisticated, more expensive storage,” he says.
Maintaining a field’s organic status also requires planning and vigilance. “Overland flooding is a problem for organic production. It’s a problem that we’ve worked very, very hard to avoid,” the CEO says. “We strategically select organic fields in areas where we don’t have that problem, and put them on higher land. If there is flooding, we take it out of organic production and make some changes.”
Other aspects of the organic farming management include:
- extensive shelterbelt placement to prevent soil erosion
- shelterbelt trimming to 15 feet above ground and weed control below so that wind can blow through to dry the vegetable crops
- retention of waste water in reservoirs
- composting all raw manure before it is put on the organic crops.
The corporation is seeing external and internal benefits from its organic offspring. On the external side, Wayne sees:
- A very big organic farming market. It’s a growing market that is willing to pay a premium for an organic label.
- Landlords like organic production. It’s “an endearing kind of production” to the public. Landlords are pleased to have organic crops on their land.
- It’s good for the land. In the long term the soil becomes healthier, and it’s perceived as healthier land management.
Fourth generation non-farming shareholder and board member, Scott Kroeker, today is deeply involved and committed to the direction of his family’s heritage. A chemistry professor, Scott identifies a shift in attitude that began around the Millennium year and eventually changed the direction of Kroeker Farms, internally and externally.
“About 15 years ago, the board initiated a group of fourth-generation shareholders to become an advisory committee. A core of 20 to 25 participated. We wanted to get more involved, to see where it was going, and see how we could make it our own eventually,” Scott says.
“Many of us didn’t have an idea about farming, but we were interested. In those early stages, an agronomist or farm manager or Wayne himself would teach us about potatoes, about different parts of the operation, and just educate us about Kroeker Farms.
“Because we were called an advisory committee, we began to think about how we would like to see this farm evolve over our lifetime. We were more or less expecting to inherit the company, to play a leadership role at some point, and wanted to take some ownership over it.
“In those early meetings we realized that, as a fourth generation, we had somewhat different principles and ideals. In particular, we were opposed to the GMOs that had been coming into our farm. We were generally uncomfortable with this and, as a group, we wanted to move in the opposite direction, toward organic farming. So we began to urge Wayne and the board to do some tests in organic farming.”
Eventually, the board and management committed to organic farming trials.
Scott says, “It was a big commitment, but they proved to be fairly successful. Our generation felt like this was a bit of a victory because it was making the farm do more of what we felt it should be doing—getting away from chemical inputs, pesticides and fuel-intensive practices – and moving toward something with more long-term sustainability.”
The impact, internally, has been profound.
Scott Kroeker says, “The fourth, and to some degree, the third generation shareholders as well, are happy today about the increase in organic acreage. We perceive ourselves to be a leader in this area in Canada. My peers are a group who will buy organics, who want to support this type of change. We’re thinking this is the future. So a lot of positivity has emerged from the shareholders because of our action in this area.”
“I’m not saying we’re ready to abandon conventional farming, but we are ready to reduce the chemical inputs and some of the environmentally concerning aspects of conventional farming because of what we’ve learned through organic farming. For me, this is very satisfying.
“My vision as a non-farmer—I stress that because I’m not directly involved in day-to-day on-the-ground decisions—is that agriculture in Canada and the United States will continue to reduce chemical inputs and use agricultural practices that are sustainable, through to the seventh generation. It’s important for all of us that Kroeker Farms has been able to exercise creativity in cultivating and implementing organic solutions on a large scale.”