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Erwin, Mathijs, JP, Marjolein and Louis Claassen.

Potato Farming Family Finds Room to Grow

As a kid growing up in the Netherlands, JP Claassen knew he wanted to be a potato farmer just like his dad.

The problem was where to do just that. Claassen’s father Louis and his uncle Anselm cultivated seed potatoes on 140 acres of fertile Dutch farmland close to the North Sea. Between the two of them, they had five sons. The two brothers knew if their boys all grew up to be farmers as well, space would be an issue.

“Holland is very crowded place,” says Claassen. “There was no room for all of us on that farm. It was just too small.”

With this realization, Claassen’s father began a lengthy search for a good place to emigrate to with his family, investigating options as far afield as New Zealand. In 2005, he found the perfect spot on the spacious plains of Alberta.

“Louis fell in love with the country, and here we are,” says 24-year-old Claassen, who helps run things at his dad’s Claassen Farms near Vauxhall, Alta. He also has his own potato operation called Prairie Spuds Farm.

“The only downfall is we have no family here,” says Claassen, whose uncle remained with the seed potato operation back in the Netherlands. “Your friends become your family, and our community was very welcoming and open to accepting us. We have integrated well and all of use like it here.”

One the things the Claassens’ like best are the wide-open spaces of their adopted home.

“There are more opportunities to grow out here,” Claassen says. Since 2005, fields have been added to the point where the family farms now comprise 5,500 acres — double the size of the original operation. Claassen notes there are no plans for further expansion, at least for the time being.

“Right now, our main focus is quality,” he says. “We want to provide the best quality product, and you can start to lose that the bigger you grow.”

Relying on Technology

The Claassens grow a variety of crops including wheat, corn, sugar beets, seed canola and seed alfalfa. Two types of potatoes — Russett Burbank and Ranger Russet — are grown on about 1,200 acres to fulfil contracts for McCain, Cavendish Farms and Lamb Weston processing plants in Alberta.

Claassen says growing just two potato varieties rather than 25 (the number of different varieties of seed potatoes grown on the farm in the Netherlands) makes things simpler and also provides opportunities to increase efficiencies. For instance, the farm is relying on technology more and more to maximize its potential.

“We’re fairly technologically advanced,” says Claassen, who feels it’s important to keep up with the latest technologies in potato production. He recently purchased a drone to scout his fields and generate data for variable rate irrigation.

“We try different things all the time to make our product a little bit better.” He notes other variable rate options are also being considered, including variable rate manure application, albeit cautiously.

“You can invest a whole lot of money in variable rate technology, but it has to pay your bills,” Claassen says. “We try to take it one step at a time and fully test things to see that they work before we jump in.”

Claassen says he enjoys the challenges that come with potato farming. “You’re constantly being challenged. From one year to the next, it’s never the same,” he says. “It keeps things interesting and it keeps it fun.”

Claassen, who graduated with a degree in business management from the University of Lethbridge in 2015, says his two younger brothers are also following in their father’s footsteps.

Erwin, 22, is setting up a new chicken operation at Claassen Farms while also helping out with potato production. Mathijs, who is 18, is studying agricultural management at Olds College in Olds, Alta.

Along with his brothers, Claassen is among the new breed of potato growers charting the future of the industry. He is optimistic about what lies ahead, and he’s also a strong believer in the strength of Alberta agriculture. As Claassen says, “the future of farming is bright out here.”

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