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The benefits of a drone's "zone" view: you can clearly see where the pivot has just gone, and the difference in health between two varieties of potatoes. (Photo: Kate Vander Zaag)

Building a better potato farm, one decision at a time

Ontario potato farmers, Kate and Peter Vander Zaag have spent almost three decades investing mentally and financially in improving their crop quality

In every business, there are front-runners and there are followers. Motivated by passion and unafraid of learning, Kate Vander Zaag, and her husband Peter, have never been ones to sit back and wait for others to forge the path ahead. Farming together in Alliston, Ont. since 1990, they are fearless about investing their brainpower to constantly build a better farm.

The Vander Zaags share flexible roles and responsibilities (Peter tends to handle logistics; Kate generally handles the planning, analysis and legwork) and a crystal clear understanding of their operation’s priorities and motivations.

“At the end of the day, every farmer has to ask themselves what’s really important. Some people are just about making money; others are about doing the best possible job. We’re quality rather than quantity driven. We’re interested in what we can do to grow the very best product, and to make the land as healthy as possible,” says Kate.

In pursuit of those goals, the Vander Zaags employ a variety of advanced forms of technology: up-to-date irrigation technology, a modern sprayer with logging weather station, field-to-storage yield mapping. They bought GPS a decade before it was mainstream; they were among the first in Canada to use yield mapping in potatoes; they imported North America’s first eight-row folding planter. All that said, Kate is pragmatic about how technology fits into her farm’s priorities.

“The technology available today is amazing, but I do believe we need to be intentional and philosophical about it. We won’t just buy technology because it is the latest and greatest. It has to prove that it can make our business better.”

And, she adds, it has to work for the good of farmers and the good of agriculture over the long term.

“Take pesticide technology for example. It’s amazing and vital. But should you spray everything at the first sighting of a bug? No. I hope and I believe that farmers are getting better at balancing priorities, since there’s really not a whole lot of room for error.”

Calculating cost-benefit ratios and return on investment (ROI) on new technologies can be challenging. While some can only justify investing time and expense in a new technique or new technology if they see concrete, immediate evidence of financial benefit, Kate points out that a wider view on ROI is often necessary.

“I love information and I want to dig deeper. Even when I can’t see the immediate financial benefit of information, I know that it might pay off in the longer term,” she notes. “Once you have information, you can bank on it for decisions that can make better quality down the road.”

Sometimes that value is obvious; other times it’s hard to guestimate. And sometimes the returns aren’t monetary. Take, for example, the GPS system they bought more than 20 years ago. At the time, GPS technology was brand new and ferociously expensive.

“But what a difference,” says Kate. “It helped us measure accurately our production acres, helped minimize mistakes and misses. And it also helped decrease driver fatigue. That’s hard to put a dollar figure to.”

Early on, the couple sat down with an accountant to talk through upgrading from a pull-type sprayer to an expensive self-propelled unit.

“Our accountant asked if we could justify the cost. I said, ‘Probably not in the dollars and cents way that you’re thinking,” notes Kate. But look at all these other benefits. I can’t necessarily tell you what they’re worth on paper, but we know they have real value to our operation.’ At some point, you have to make some leapfrogs in technology.”

High-tech equipment is just one area in which the Vander Zaags invest to improve their farm and product. They also regularly participate in formal and informal on-farm research trials. Everything – every process, every tool, every system – is up for scrutiny and constant tweaking on the Vander Zaag farm.

“I’m a bit of divergent lifelong learner. I get excited asking what we can do differently and better. I don’t want to just grab the same tool I used last year and the year before and end up with the same results,” says Kate. “I want to know why we’re doing what we’re doing.  I want to consider all the options, try things out and measure them intensively to work towards a better product.”

The testing and trialing requires intensive record keeping and analysis, an area in which the couple’s academic backgrounds (they each hold Bachelor of Science degrees in crop science) come in handy.

“How do you really know what you’ve got if you don’t measure it? If you believe everything is fine but you don’t analyze it, maybe you’re right but maybe you’re wrong.  A potato plant is forgiving. But my priority isn’t just acceptable or average production. I want to maximize,” says Kate. “As we become more accountable for what we’ve done and how we’ve done it, we are able to ask better questions and seek better answers.”

Perhaps the single greatest difference between the Vander Zaag farm and others is the couple’s attitude towards the inevitable “oops” that happen over the course of a season. The Vander Zaags believe that, on their operation, there is no such thing as a mistake.

“Instead of focusing on immediate gratification, you need a long-term perspective. That screw-up you did? Maybe next year or the year after it’s going to impact yield,” notes Kate. “If you can identify it and track it, there’s value in the learning. Maybe it turns out to be a benefit that you didn’t expect, or maybe not. If it’s successful, you carry it through. If it’s unsuccessful, at least you have more knowledge. More often than not we’ll do something inadvertently and it will cause a yield response. At first that drove me crazy because I didn’t know what was causing the response. Now we track everything and we do our best to learn from everything.”

The farm’s newest technology – a drone – is uniquely fitting on this forward-thinking operation.

“When I walk the field, I see leaf level,” says Kate. “When my husband drives through it, he sees plant level. When we fly the drone, now we can see row and zone level. Some would say, ‘Who cares?’ I say so much of life is perspective: the wider your perspective and the more angles you can see things from, the better your decisions.”

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