Peter VanderZaag, who runs Sunrise Potato Storage in Alliston, Ontario, has spent much of his farming career investing in new equipment, securing contracts and growing his business. But VanderZaag’s journey required a firm and ongoing commitment to change, first in terms of soil health and productivity, and then in meeting his customers’ demands for quality and consistency while incorporating new technologies.
“Most farmers understand they have to do this,” says VanderZaag. “You cannot get a mediocre crop; you need an excellent crop. You have to have everything done right, and that starts with good soil health and good soil management … and then good seed and good management of the crop as it grows.”
From 1963 to 1980 there was significant expansion of monoculture potato production in southern Simcoe County where the farm was located. VanderZaag says diverse crop rotations and livestock production were abandoned across much of the district and soils began to show signs of deleterious pathogen levels as well as water and wind erosion, with frequent sandstorms in the area.
VanderZaag eventually became a potato scientist. In 1991 he and his wife set their sights on potato production and leased several abandoned farms in an area north of where VanderZaag grew up.
Seeing the impact of soil degradation in many parts of the world, the VanderZaags realized soil heath and crop diversity would be key to their farming success and they could also serve as an example for others to consider. They embarked on a 16-year journey in returning the soils on their farms to full productivity, employing many of the regenerative agricultural practices they had learned from their travels.