Michel and Hanneke Camps didn’t plan on becoming farm owners when they first arrived in Canada in 2000.
The husband and wife had both graduated from university in their native Holland with degrees in intensive livestock management and were eager to gain some work experience abroad. They ended up in southern Alberta and spent the next two years doing just that, Michel at a potato farm and Hanneke at a nearby hog operation.
But as author John Steinbeck once wrote, even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. In 2002, the couple decided to make Canada their full-time home and applied for landed immigrant status. A short time later they purchased a small 250-acre farm near Barnwell, a small village just outside of Taber, Alta.
“When we came to Canada it was never really my intention to buy a farm,” Michel says with a chuckle. “We just wanted to gain some work experience and spend a couple of years away from my family’s farm [in Holland].”
LOVE ON THE PRAIRIES
Michel says he and Hanneke fell in love with the area soon after their arrival, and with falling commodity prices back in Holland decided to try their luck on the Canadian Prairies.
Still, he admits they likely would not have gotten into the farm biz had it not been for some fortuitous circumstances. A gentleman looking to sell his family’s farm insisted on selling it to a couple that would carry on the operation in the same manner as him and his parents and even cut them a break on the equipment financing. Michel continued to work part-time at another nearby farm where the owner allowed him to use his equipment at his own CP Farms.
While it might not have been the most conventional start, it has certainly worked out for the Camps. CP Farms has slowly but methodically grown from that initial 250 acres to nearly 2,500 acres. They now grow just shy of 1,000 acres of potatoes each year in addition to sugar beets, grain corn, sunflowers and wheat.
VALUE OF LAND OWNERSHIP
“We recognized the importance of land ownership early on,” Michel says. “We were fairly aggressive about purchasing land close to the farm whenever it became available. That was a big part of our success, that we were aggressive purchasing land…to get that land base.”
Today, CP Farms produces annual yields of 19 to 20 tonnes of potatoes, which accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the family-owned operation’s turnover. It focuses almost exclusively on russet Burbank potatoes for the French fry market, although it has also experimented with fresh cut fries and baker russets.
Michel says focusing on process potatoes just makes sense in the current market.
STABILITY IS KEY
“The processing industry is a very stable industry,” he says. “Stability in the industry is key for a young entrepreneur. Process potatoes are contracted so you know what you’re going to grow and fr how much. Prices might fluctuate up or down but it’s not usually more than a couple per cent. And there’s a good margin for us in the process market.”
The Camps currently employ five full-time staff at CP Farms as well as a couple of European exchange students each summer.
Although their expansion plans have slowed somewhat the past few seasons, they have continued to incorporate more and more new technology into their operation, including auto-steer tractors, GPS guidance and application systems and the latest self-propelled harvesters.
The couple has also made a significant investment in expanding CP Farm’s storage capacity. They already owned nearly 5,000 tonnes of storage facilities when they added another 10,000 tonnes of capacity in 2012 and an additional 3,000 earlier this year. That means they no longer have to rent storage space elsewhere.
“There are a lot of people who are successful without the technology that still farm like dad did. I don’t think that’s wrong…but it’s not for us,” Michel says.
Spoken like a typical Canadian farmer.